HC Deb 05 August 1965 vol 717 cc1888-92
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir Frank Soskice)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the case of Detective Sergeant Challenor.

As I have already informed the House, I have recently received the Report of Mr. Arthur James on his inquiry into the circumstances in which it was possible for Detective Sergeant Challenor to continue on duty at a time when he appears to have been affected by the onset of mental illness. I am very grateful indeed to Mr. James for the thoroughness with which he has investigated these matters, and I am anxious to publish his Report in full as soon as possible.

I have a statutory power to remit a person in Mr. Challenor's position to prison for trial if I am satisfied that he can properly be tried, and I have been giving anxious consideration, in consultation with my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, to the question whether I should be justified in exercising this power but on the medical advice we have received I am of opinion that I could not yet properly direct the return of Mr. Challenor to prison from the hospital at which he has been receiving treatment. I am, however, arranging for further medical opinions on this question before coming to a decision.

My right hon. and learned Friend has advised me that as the Report deals in part with matters which might be directly in issue in any proceedings taken against Mr. Challenor the publication of the Report might seriously prejudice his chance of receiving a fair trial. I have, accordingly, after consultation with my right hon. and learned Friend, decided that for the time being I should hold up publication of the Report. It is my intention to publish it in full as soon as I can properly do so.

In the meantime, I have to inform the House that Mr. James finds that Mr. Challenor continued on duty in circumstances which cast no blame whatever on any member of the Metropolitan Police Force or on any of the doctors who examined him.

Mr. Thorneycroft

May I, first, thank the Home Secretary for his courtesy in making this statement before we rise for the Recess? It is a matter which is of some public concern. May I also say that I think that the whole House will feel gratified that he, who has read the Report, feels able to put in the final paragraph of the statement which he has made?

There are two points which I would like to raise arising out of this statement. One is, will the Home Secretary recognise that, from our point of view, no one wants a Report to be published which will prejudice any man in his trial? What I think most of us feel is that what is really important is not the time of the publication, but the fact that the Report will be published. I would like the Home Secretary to emphasise that it is his firm intention to have the text published.

The second point concerns the proceedings. Are those proceedings those which were instituted, but to which Challenor was unfit to plead, or is it contemplated that some new charges might be made against him? In any event, would it be his view that sometime in the autumn we ought to decide, one way or the other, whether we are to take decisions? We do not want to be perpetually in the dilemma of having proceedings which might be brought, and therefore, with no publication of the Report. Would the Home Secretary feel it possible for a firm decision to be made some time in the autumn?

Sir F. Soskice

I can say that I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has just put to me. I accept that it is of the greatest importance that the public should know exactly what is in this Report, and should know it in full, at the earliest possible moment. I have that very much in mind. The right hon. Gentleman accepts, and I feel that the whole House will agree with me that it is essential, if a man is put on trial for a criminal charge, that he must have a fair trial, and that nothing must be done which could possibly prejudice his chance of having such a fair trial. Subject to that requirement being fulfilled, I undertake, and it is my firm intention, to have the full Report published as soon as I possibly can.

On the question about the charges which might be preferred, that is, of course, entirely a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General. I understand that the charges which he has in mind are those in respect of which Sergeant Challenor has already been put on trial, but to which he was found unfit to plead. It will, naturally, be a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend whether he thinks it appropriate, in all the circumstances, to add any further charges. I cannot say anything further than that.

Mr. Lipton

Does the statement of my right hon. and learned Friend mean that there can be no publication of the Report until the contemplated proceedings against Challenor have been concluded, or a decision has been taken not to proceed any further with a prosecution?

Sir F. Soskice

That must be a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General to decide. So far as I am concerned, in deciding when I may publish the Report, I must wait until a firm decision has been taken as to whether Sergeant Challenor is to be prosecuted. If he is to be prosecuted then I must wait until the trial has been completed, so that he cannot possibly suffer any prejudice by the publication of the Report.

Mr. Brooke

As it was I who set up this inquiry, the first under the new powers given by the 1964 Act, may I be allowed to associate myself with the Home Secretary's expression of appreciation to Mr. James for his assiduous work? As the Commissioner of Police was criticised, and as I was criticised, as being responsible for the Metropolitan Police, and for having allowed Sergeant Challenor to be on duty in circumstances when it was alleged that it was clear he was not fit for duty, can we understand from the Home Secretary that Mr. James's Report completely disposes of all those charges?

Sir F. Soskice

I have already said so. I am very glad to have been able to give the House the information which I have already given with regard to the opinion expressed by Mr. James, that there was no blame in the fact that Mr. Challenor was allowed to continue on duty.

Mr. Driberg

Quite apart from the question of prejudice, is it not rather hard on Mr. Challenor himself that there should be this threat of a possible trial hanging over him for some months? Could this not actually impede his complete recovery? Would my right hon. and learned Friend and the learned Attorney-General consider that there must surely be a strong presumption that, if Mr. Challenor was unfit to plead when he was charged, he was also mentally disturbed when he did the admittedly very terrible things that he did do?

Sir F. Soskice

All those are matters which my right hon. and learned Friend, I have no doubt, will take into account. I think that the whole House would wish to join in the expression of sympathy offered by my hon. Friend to anyone who has been ill, and is not yet well, and who finds himself in the position in which Mr. Challenor finds himself, when charges may be preferred against him.

Mr. Lubbock

While thanking the Home Secretary for making his statement, may I ask him why such a long delay has elapsed between the completion of Mr. James's investigations last November and his announcement of the findings today? May I also ask whether he has given consideration to the publication of an interim Report, or even a summary, of Mr. James's investigations, excluding any reference to matters which might affect proceedings which could ultimately be taken against Mr. Challoner?

Sir F. Soskice

Mr. James completed the hearing on 26th November, 1964, and his Report was delivered at the Home Office on 16th July this year. It is a very long and complicated Report and very careful consideration has had to be given to it.

I had certainly taken the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question into account. My desire, and I feel it would be the desire of everyone, is that the full Report should be published. If circumstances so turn out that it either cannot be done for a long time, or if there is any other reason still standing in the way of publication of the full Report, I will certainly think again—and I have already thought—of the possibility of giving such a complete extract from it as would inform the public of the substance of its findings.

I have not done so yet because, as I say, I feel sure that the public would wish to see the full Report, so that no gloss can be put upon it, and everyone can judge for themselves as to its contents.