HC Deb 24 April 1968 vol 763 cc413-22

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

12.18 a.m.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins (Putney)

Mr. Speaker, you have been good enough to give me the opportunity to raise the case of my constituent Mr. Edward Blackman. He collects antique weapons as a hobby. He buys and sells them regularly. In March, 1966, he bought a house in Manchester, furnished it, and lived there with his mother. The house is in his mother's name. He later obtained a flat in Putney as his business as a motor car dealer is in the South, and he spent part of the time there.

Mr. Blackman insured the Manchester house and its contents first with a London office, and when this policy expired in March, 1967, he insured it with the Co-operative Insurance Society in Manchester. In Manchester, he kept about half his collection of antique weapons. Of the total of about 40, 23 were in Manchester, and about 20 were in Putney. He included the antique weapons in the insurance with the Manchester house. They were inspected by the society, and the proper premium was paid.

The weapons in Putney were not insured. He decided that they should be, and in June, 1967, he took them to Manchester to be added to the insurance cover there. They were seen by the company's representative, but the cover was not concluded because he had decided to sell the Manchester house. So he brought the 20 or so weapons back to Putney, intending to insure them there after the move from Manchester. A buyer for the Manchester house was found, but, before the move took place, on Saturday morning, 16th September. Mr. Blackman's mother telephoned him from Manchester to say that the 23 antique weapons there had been stolen. This was at once reported to the police and the insurance company.

More than a fortnight later, on 3rd October last, at seven o'clock in the morning, five men who said they were police officers demanded entry to Mr. Blackman's flat, saying they had a war- rant. He asked what they wanted and they said they were looking for counterfeiting material. My constituent, who is a mild man, was greatly alarmed and produced some gold counters which the police took, together with the Putney part, 20 or so, of his antique weapons collection.

They insisted that he must accompany them to Putney Police Station and he was kept there in considerable concern for three hours, much against his will. He asked whether he was being arrested and was told that he was. Mr. Blackman could prove his ownership of some of these guns and he produced receipts and auction catalogues. Some of them were purchased after the theft of the weapons from Manchester, and others were among those which had been taken to Manchester for valuation and brought back: this also was proved.

When he was released, the police retained his property and told him that if he wanted it back he would have to go to New Scotland Yard. He did so promptly, which shows, I think, that he is not likely to be guilty of any misdemeanour, but the guns were still not returned to him. He then wrote to the Home Office, with no result. Finally, on his solicitor's advice, he came to see me, and, on 20th December, I wrote to the Home Office asking for the return of Mr. Blackman's property, for an apology and for compensation.

The Under-Secretary did not reply until 19th February. He said that the police, …acting on information in their possession, applied to Bow Street Magistrates' Court on 29th September, 1967, for warrants to search a flat at 12 Earnshaw Place, Carlton Drive, S.W.15, an address in Peckham and also a house in Manchester from which Mr. Blackman had reported to the Manchester Police the theft of 23 antique firearms. The applications were granted and on 3rd October the flat at 12 Earnshaw Place was searched in the presence of Mr. Blackman and the police took possession of a number of antique pistols and revolvers and some coins and cartridges. He added: The Commissioner tells me expensive inquiries have been necessary, both here and abroad, in connection with claims about the ownership of those firearms; and the police have at no time assured Mr. Blackman that they were satisfied that the firearms were his property. The inquiries are still not complete and the Commissioner regrets that he cannot at present agree that the firearms should be returned to Mr. Blackman. As you will appreciate, this is not a matter in which the Home Secretary can intervene. In parenthesis, perhaps I may congratulate my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary on what is, I believe, his first reply to a debate from the Front Bench. I hope that he will rise to the occasion and will not stick entirely to the brief which he has undoubtedly been given.

Since when have the police been entitled forcibly to remove property and to require the owner to prove ownership as a condition of return? Mr. Blackman believes that he did prove ownership, but still his property was kept from him.

I then put down a Question, and on 8th March it and the Answer read as follows: Mr. Hugh Jenkins asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department why the flat of Mr. Blackman, a constituent of the hon. Member for Wandsworth, Putney was search by the police on 3rd October, 1967; why Mr. Blackman was arrested and detained for three hours; and why the police forcibly removed Mr. Blackman's property and refused to return it to him. I received this reply: Mr. Taverne: These are matters for the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis. I am informed that the flat was searched under warrant to seek some property which had been reported to be stolen and that Mr. Blackman voluntarily accompanied the police to the police station to help them with identification and other aspects of their inquiries. The Commissioner has now decided not to institute proceedings in connection with the articles of which the police took possession and they have been returned to Mr. Blackman."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th March, 1968; Vol. 760, c. 185.] It is noteworthy that Mr. Blackman's property was not returned to him until that Question was tabled and that the then Under-Secretary did not say, or perhaps did not know, that not all of Mr. Blackman's property was returned. The police kept two guns, and they still have them.

What, then, is all this about? Mr. Blackman does not know, but he tells me that he can guess. Twenty or so weapons were stolen from Manchester. They had been insured with the Co-operative Insurance Society less than a year before. Soon after, Mr. Blackman was seen in London with about the same number of guns. Did the insurance company and the police assume that Mr. Blackman had stolen his own property and was seeking to make a fraudulent claim? It seems likely. But, if that was the case, why all the drama?

Why did not the insurance company simply refuse to pay and see whether Mr. Blackman sued? If he did not sue, then, after a period of time—without all the dramatic business of taking him to the police station in the early hours of the morning—the assumption might reasonably have been made that something was fishy. If, on the other hand, he did instruct his solicitors to go ahead, the police would have seen, without this business of waking him up at seven o'clock in the morning, that they might have been mistaken. Mr. Blackman is not only short of the property stolen from Manchester, but is also short of two guns which are still held by the police.

Perhaps the truth of the matter is that the police have been rather attracted by the vision of themselves as portrayed in some television programmes—seeing themselves as the tough guys in "Softly Softly" and "Z Cars"—and, instead of going through the painful and fiddling process of detection and proof, they like to be the important men who knock on doors in the early morning and take flabbergasted citizens down to the station for questioning. We in this country do not like to feel that that sort of thing goes on. Whatever "Inspector Barlow" may say, it is to be hoped that our police will not adopt that attitude. Oscar Wilde pointed out long ago that life imitates art and that when it is good art that is not too bad. But to have the police imitating the "telly cops" is past a joke.

I hope that my hon. Friend will say that the police will return the remainder of my constituent's property, will apologise to him and will offer him some reasonable compensation. I have advised my constituent that unless he receives that degree of assurance, he should now do what he should have done long ago, and that is to ask his solicitors to issue proceedings, for I am advised that he would be likely to succeed at law.

I greatly admire the police and they should not all be blamed because a few of them have an over-developed sense of drama and are perhaps rather too ready to jump to conclusions—any more than 10,000 demonstrators should be blamed because a few of them mistakenly think that one can stop violence with violence. But there has been rather too much of this lately and we must be vigilant about it. Perhaps a course of "Dixon of Dock Green" rather than "Barlow" would be a good remedy for our policemen friends in future.

The basic strength of the police is that they are still looked on as friends by most of us. Any action which prejudices that position is a loss to them, and a loss to all of us. Perhaps Bow Street magistrates might think twice before issuing writs too easily.

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing me to raise this matter tonight and I look forward to my hon. Friend's reply. I hope that he will enable me to feel in my heart that I was fully justified, before hearing his reply, in expressing congratulations to him on his appearance on the Front Bench.

12.30 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Elystan Morgan)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Hugh Jenkins) for his generous remarks. I can assure him that I have every intention of adhering to the basic facts of this case rather than to any set brief. I have no intention, like my hon. Friend, of referring to popular television programmes or Oscar Wilde or anyone else.

My hon. Friend has put his case with skill and fervour. In the debate tonight and in correspondence with my predecessor, the hon. and learned Member for Lincoln (Mr. Taverne), he has put forward certain criticisms of the police in relation to Mr. Blackman. The main criticisms are as follows: first, he has criticised them for delay in returning the property which they took into their possession; secondly, he suggests that the length of time for which Mr. Blackman was detained at Putney Police Station was unreasonable; thirdly, he has cast doubts on the adequacy of the arrangements made by the police in handling the property; fourthly, he has challenged the propriety of the reason set out in the search warrant; and he has also challenged the right to have taken the guns from Mr. Blackman's flat.

Before dealing with each and everyone of these issues in detail, I should like to give the House a brief summary of the main facts of the case. On 29th September last, following information they had received, officers of the Metropolitan Police Criminal Investigation Department applied for and obtained warrants to search three properties, two in London and one in Manchester. Mr. Blackman had a connection with each of these. The reason set out in the search warrant for this search was that they were searching for counterfeit coin and counterfeiting instruments contrary to Section 11 of the Coinage Offences Act, 1936.

The three warrants were executed more or less simultaneously on the morning of 3rd October last. Mr. Blackman was present at his flat, 12 Earnshaw Place, S.W.15. From those premises there were taken a number of articles, including 59 coins, 24 antique pistols and revolvers, one packet of 12 bore cartridges, one packet of 4/10 cartridges, one canister of black powder, a cheque book and two lists of firearms. The officers who attended the flat requested Mr. Blackman to go with them to Putney Police Station to assist them particularly in the identification of the firearms. He was at the police station from 9 a.m. until 12 noon. The officers arrived at his flat at 8 a.m., not 7 a.m. as stated by my hon. Friend. Substantial inquiries followed and a further visit was made to 12 Earnshaw Place and police officers took away on 5th October four muskets and six bayonets.

Mr. Blackman wrote to my right hon. Friend on 27th November asking for the return of the firearms and on 20th December my hon. Friend wrote to my right hon. Friend urgently requesting the return of the whole of Mr. Blackman's property. The police continued with their inquiries but no charges were preferred. On 6th March the firearms, with the exception of the two mentioned by my hon. Friend this evening—and I was not aware that they had been withheld—were returned to Mr. Blackman's mother at Manchester in accordance with his instructions. The police are anxious to return the whole of the remaining property with the exception of the cartridges and the black powder and case which Mr. Blackman says he does not wish them to return.

They have on various occasions sought to contact him to arrange an appointment with him so that proper arrangements can be made for the return of this property, but so far they have not been successful, and although officers have called on Mr. Blackman on many occasions they have not succeeded in making contact with him on most of those occasions.

I now come to the specific allegations. First, on the question of delay, it is conceded that there is a high duty on the police to return to the rightful owner any property that they have seized for the purposes of investigation in circumstances where charges are not preferred and where it is proper and necessary that such property should be returned.

In this case the investigatory efforts of the police, as can be imagined, turned in the main around the firearms. These were antique pieces, not bearing registration marks, and the difficulties involved in tracing them were very much greater than they would be in the normal case, with more modern weapons. There were as many cases for separate inquiry as there were individual firearms.

The investigations which deal with the matters mentioned by my hon. Friend were rather wider in scope than he suggested, and they ranged over a wide area. They also necessitated inquiries being made abroad. The volume of activity involved was considerable, and the matter should also be looked at against the background of the general duties of the Metropolitan Police Force and the other concurrent duties of the officers concerned.

The second matter mentioned by my hon. Friend related to the length of time for which Mr. Blackman was kept at the police station. He attended Putney Police Station following the request of the police officers to accompany him there. He drove in his own car in the company of one of those officers. He expressed complete willingness to help the officer concerned to identify the firearms which had been taken from his flat. The House will remember that there were 24 guns, and each was dealt with in turn. I understand that Mr. Blackman was very co-operative and that he went to some lengths to show the officers how the various pieces worked.

Mr. Blackman was at this time told of the searches which were contemporaneously taking place at No. 383 St. Margaret's Road, Twickenham, and No. 124 Stamford Street, Stretford, Manchester. He raised no apparent objection to these developments, and after he had been at the police station for some time the officers there received a telephone communication from police officers at Manchester, who reported that they could not find a key to allow entry into the Manchester premises. Mr. Blackman very kindly gave them the name and address of a solicitor from whom a key could be obtained. There were subsequent telephone calls, and the Manchester police ultimately reported to say that they had visited the premises and had not taken any property therefrom.

I stress these events to show that some time was consumed by such matters, and that at no time between 9 a.m. and 12 noon, when he left Putney Police Station, did Mr. Blackman give any indication that he was objecting to his presence there, nor was any suggestion made that he would be kept there contrary to his will.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

I have a letter from Mr. Blackman here to say: I was detained against my will for three hours. It may be that Mr. Blackman thought that since the police were apparently suspicious of him in some respects, it was in his interests to co-operate with them, and I should have thought that his behaviour was entirely consistent with that of an innocent man.

Mr. Morgan

I have ample evidence, from the statements made by police officers present at the time, to say that no attempt was made to detain Mr. Blackman against his will.

The point has been made in previous correspondence that the arrangements for the keeping and storage of these guns were not adequate. In this matter the police exercised every possible care. When they were removed from the flat, each firearm was individually wrapped and placed in a suitcase produced for the purpose by Mr. Blackman. At Putney Police Station they were carefully laid on the charge-room table. Detective-Sergeant Potter directed that the firearms should only be handled by him, Mr. Blackman and Detective-Sergeant Seymour.

After Mr. Blackman had left, the guns were carefully re-wrapped, replaced in a suitcase, and taken to New Scotland Yard, where they were again, with every care, placed in a metal cabinet specially allocated for that purpose. Criticism has been made concerning the way in which the warrants were obtained. I believe it right that the House should know that information by way of a signed communication was received by the police in late August. No action was taken until 29th September. In the meantime the police made all reasonable efforts to check the accuracy of the information contained in the correspondence.

It was as a result of these checks that applications were made for the three search warrants. On the matter of the propriety or otherwise of taking the guns under a warrant, which, on the face of it, dealt with a possible offence under Section 11 of the Coinage Offences Act, 1936, the House should remember that the officers, in deciding whether to take the guns, were aware that Mr. Blackman had, a short while previously, in September, reported a case of breaking and entering at his mother's premises in Manchester. As a result of that, property belonging to him, namely antique guns, had been stolen. Being aware of this, and also of the matter alluded to by my hon. Friend, namely the taking out of the insurance policy—which incidentally was taken out, not in March 1967, but on 15th September 1967—a few days before the breaking and entering, the police decided that it would be proper for them to take possession of the firearms.

As a general proposition, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I would submit that unless police officers entering premises on the strength of a warrant take property in respect of which they have a reasonable suspicion that a serious offence had been committed, then their task in the appre- hension of criminals would be made infinitely more difficult than it is at present. I plead that in relation to these guns they had that suspicion and that they acted reasonably and prudently in the circumstances.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins rose——

Mr. Morgan

I cannot give way. I am racing against time, as I am sure my hon. Friend realises.

I would remind my hon. Friend that following the making of the complaint and under the procedure of Section 49 of the Police Act, 1964, this matter was referred to the Commissioner of Police for report and careful investigations were made. They took a considerable time, hence the delay in replying to my hon. Friend.

On the question of damages, it is not for me, on behalf of the Home Office, to say whether Mr. Blackman can claim them in this case. It is a matter which he must take up with his legal advisers. When Mr. Blackman visited Wandsworth Police Station some time ago he told a Detective Sergeant Roberts there that he had not made any complaint and in a message to Detective Superintendent Williams, on 16th January, he said that all he wanted was his guns back. He did not want to lodge a complaint against anybody at all.

I believe that this case illustrates the conflict which often occurs between the necessity, on the one hand, to respect a subject's property and, on the other, the need for police officers to carry out their duties with initiative and imagination. It is regretted——

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Wednesday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twelve minutes to One o'clock.