HC Deb 07 March 1968 vol 760 cc826-36

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

11.55 p.m.

Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas (Cheltenham)

In my rôle as champion of the oppressed of all classes, from immigrants to the aristocracy, I raise this important issue of civil liberty and the circumstances in which Lady Diana Cooper's house, No. 10, Warwick Avenue, was serched for drugs on Monday, 19th February. I am glad to see that the Under-Secretary of State has had the courtesy to come to listen to the arguments and I take it that he will reply.

I will briefly recite the facts of what occurred that day. At midnight, Lady Diana's maid, Mrs. Vials, was asleep in her bedroom alone in the house when she was aroused by banging on the door and the ringing of the doorbell. The house was in darkness, save for one light left on to discourage burglars—a reasonable precaution when one recalls that 18 months ago, Lady Diana and a friend, en route to the opera, were bound and gagged by a gang who broke into the house.

Mrs. Vials went downstairs and prudently, in view of the experience of her mistress, opened the door on the chain only. She saw four young men standing on the doorstep, two uniformed and two in plain clothes. She said, "I cannot let you in. My Lady is not here." They replied that she was obliged to let them in, saying, "We have a warrant. We are policemen." Mrs. Vials was sceptical and said that she did not know whether the warrant was genuine or whether they were real policemen, adding, "You can get that gear in Carnaby Street". I understand that there is a practice in some police stations to lend uniforms to members of the public for private purposes, and I strongly suggest that that practice should be discontinued.

However, the police said, "If you do not open up, we will break the door down." Discretion overtook valour and Mrs. Vials let them in. The policemen then went straight to Lady Diana's bedroom and asked, "Could we see the hat box?" I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will be able to throw some light on the question of the hat box. On the previous Saturday, Lady Diana had returned from Rome carrying a hat box, which she carried through the Customs. It was a hat box of distinctive character because it was covered in paper made out to look like leopard skin. A question which arises here in my mind is whether there was some suspicion perhaps at the Customs which was later translated into information to the police. The police then searched Lady Diana's bedroom thoroughly, but reasonably, and caused no damage, and there is no complaint on that score. Having expressed surprise at the length of the dressers in her bedroom, they then left. They were in the house 45 minutes.

Lady Diana returned from Brighton the following day and was naturally indignant, in fact outraged, at this invasion of her house. Later she received an apology from the police. This incident raises grave issues about the liberty of the subject. They are of concern not only to Lady Diana Cooper but to every citizen of the United Kingdom. A brilliant and attractive woman like Lady Diana Cooper—the greatest beauty of her generation, and the bearer of a name which will always be honoured as long as there is an English nation—will never lack for champions. Even in this dreary epoch, where the contemporary idol is the computer, chivalry is not quite dead.

What of others, less generously endowed with the graces of hereditary gifts and social rank? Their remedies are not so obvious. As Lady Diana, with typical modesty and magnanimity, remarked: If they have me stamped as a drug maniac it doesn't matter at my time of life. It would be so awful if it happened to people, unlike myself, who were not in a position to make a fuss. It does happen to other people. The National Council for Civil Liberties has been in communication with me and informs me that there are frequent complaints of unjustified drug raids. I have had a communication from the Freedom Press, complaining about a raid on its premises on 27th February, a few days ago.

Because of the necessity to protect the liberty of the individual, both common law and statute law have hedged about with restrictions the right to search a house. The common law allows only one instance of a search. Statute law has added others, but has always been careful to add safeguards. This case concerns drugs. I appreciate fully that in this, as in any other branch of the law, the police have a difficult task to discharge. If they are to discharge their duties, they must act swiftly.

But the Drugs (Prevention of Misuse) Act, 1964, while recognising this, goes out of its way to provide safeguards for the liberty of the subject. It requires that before a search of private premises be carried out a search warrant should be issued. That warrant can only be issued by a magistrate, and the magistrate must be satisfied, upon written information, substantiated on oath, that there is reasonable ground to believe that drugs are present on the premises. Unless those conditions are fulfilled, he is not to issue a warrant.

Were these conditions fulfilled in this case? The police, as we know, acted on an anonymous telephone call. It seems clear that no attempt was made to check it. Surely this is an intolerable practice. Anyone's house, their most private papers, their personal possessions, their personal privacy, is thus made liable to disturbance at the behest of an anonymous and possibly malicious troublemaker. If this is allowed to go unchallenged, then an Englishman's home, far from being his castle, is reduced to the status of a wigwam.

What we require from the Home Office, and the Minister, is an authoritative statement of the practice of the police, what it is meant to be and why it was not observed in this case. I must ask the Home Secretary now to issue instructions to the police that in future an application in such circumstances for a search warrant will not be made until further inquiries have been made, such as the observation of the house, observation of the occupants, etc. All these should be carried out before action is taken on an anonymous tip-off.

There is a second disturbing part of the case. Parliament has interposed a magistrate between the police and the public as a protection. As The Times has pointed out, this necessary safeguard is nullified if magistrates do not inform themselves fully of the grounds on which the police are seeking to act or if, having informed themselves, they are not prepared to exercise their discretion about what constitutes reasonable suspicion.

If a magistrate's intervention is to be other than a mere formality, surely the police are under a duty to inform the magistrate or magistrates of the grounds on which they apply for the search warrant. If they do not do this, how can any inquiry be made into the justification for the issue of such a warrant? How can there be any judicial exercise of discretion? Surely, Parliament has imagined that magistrates would make inquiry into the grounds on which a warrant was being sought before issuing it.

In the present case, there has been a double failure. It was never revealed, as far as I understand, by the police that the tip-off was an anonymous tip-off and the magistrate never made inquiry into the circumstances in which he was required to issue the warrant. The least we can do is to ask that the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor remedy this shocking state of affairs and end the practice by which police approach for search warrants only those magistrates known to be accommodating or lax in this regard.

If liberty is to survive in Britain, if we are to avoid the horrors of a police State, liberty must be zealously defended. The distress and anxiety caused to Lady Diana Cooper are deeply to be regretted, but they will have served some purpose if they lead to a more scrupulous practice in the police and others with regard to search warrants.

The Home Secretary rightly supports the police in their difficult task of maintaining law and order, but he would be failing in his duty and he would rapidly lose the confidence of the people if he did not also exert himself to protect what is equally important: the rights and the liberties of the subject. Of those rights and liberties, the inviolability of the home is not the least to be cherished.

12.8 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Dick Taverne)

We are debating an individual case of great importance, as the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas), in a very fair speech, has properly pointed out. It started with a hat box but it is a case which concerns the liberty of the subject.

As the hon. Member has said, the case attracted special attention because the lady concerned has always been a lady highly esteemed and widely respected and was recently concerned in an incident in which she acted most courageously when attacked by burglars. The House would not, however, want to treat this incident in isolation or, indeed, on the basis of the status, standing or admirable qualities of the individual concerned.

We are concerned with the general safeguards provided for all citizens whatever their status or social background. I propose, therefore, to deal briefly with the incident and then to discuss the general implications to which the hon. Member has referred and also to mention the action which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary intends to take as a result of what has emerged from this case.

The facts are not in dispute. The hon. Member has referred to them, but perhaps I may set them out from the police side. At a quarter to eleven on Monday, 19th February, a call was received in the Information Room at New Scotland Yard from a person who refused to give particulars of himself. It was an anonymous informant. He said that Lady Diana Cooper, and he gave the address, had just returned from Paris and that a large amount of heroin was in a hat box under the bed at her address. It was not information coming from the Customs. It was not suspicion aroused by the way the hat or the hat box had been got up. The information was passed to the local division to be dealt with. At 11.15 p.m., the station sergeant applied to a magistrate who issued a search warrant.

Viscount Lambton (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Will the Under-Secretary say whether it is the custom of the police to act on any anonymous call if no details whatever are given of the person making the call?

Mr. Taverne

As I have already explained, I intend first to deal with the incident and then with the general practice and implications.

Viscount Lambton

This is a simple point which can be answered at once.

Mr. Taverne

I will answer it in the proper place.

At midnight, the sergeant, in uniform, went with three other officers to the address. They asked to speak to Lady Diana Cooper and were told by her housekeeper that she was not at home. It was explained that they had a search warrant and they were admitted to the house. They searched a wardrobe in a bedroom, made an examination of the room generally, and in particular paid attention to this hat box.

In the morning of 20th February, the station sergeant reported the facts of the search to his superintendent. The following morning, the superintendent called by appointment on Lady Cooper. He explained the circumstances which had led to the search and asked for Lady Cooper's assistance in tracing the identity of the anonymous caller. On 23rd February, the Deputy Commissioner called upon Lady Cooper personally and offered apologies for the incident.

The first thing to say about this incident is that a serious mistake was made by the police in acting upon an anonymous telephone call in the way they did. When the facts came before senior officers, the mistake was immediately admitted and an apology offered without delay. At no time has it been claimed by the police that the action taken by the sergeant was justified. Later I will say what is normally done in this kind of case. The officer who took the decision on the spot in the middle of the night had a difficult decision to take, but I would emphasise that there is no question but that he committed a serious error of judgment, and the hon. Member was right to draw attention to an invasion of privacy which should never have occurred. I want now to analyse what went wrong.

Viscount Lambton

Before he goes on, can the Under-Secretary make it quite clear that there has been no other investigation of private individuals as a result of anonymous information?

Mr. Taverne

I wish he would be patient. I will analyse what went wrong and then say what is the general practice, and deal with the question of whether it is right for the police to deal with anonymous telephone calls. I have said it was wrong for them to act, in the way they did.

It is right to remind the House of the importance of the drugs problem and of the importance of dealing with illegal trafficking, particularly when there is an allegation about heroin. The police know that drugs have been introduced into legitimate consignments of goods and luggage and recovered when the container has been landed. They also know that supplies move rapidly and that bulk is soon broken down and distributed. It is therefore desirable to act quickly when information is received, so it must first be said in defence of the police that they have always to balance the need for quick action against the need to check the reliability of information. This is often a difficult matter of judgment and, although general guidance can help, about which I will say more later, no hard-and-fast rules can be laid down, as each case presents individual problems and there is no substitute for the wisdom and experience of the individual officer.

When one comes to information from an anonymous source, one has a particular difficulty. Recently, there has been an increasing amount of information about drugs coming from members of the public. Much of it has turned out to be true; some has no foundation and seems to be motivated by spite, malice or mental unbalance on the part of the informer. Obviously the police cannot ignore anonymous information, and it would be much preferable if information always came from impeccable and respectable sources, but that is not always so.

Anonymous information must clearly be treated with especial care, and the sort of steps that can be taken to check information will depend on the circumstances, but they can include observation of the premises to assess the likelihood of the allegation and the need for speedy action, searches in various indices at Scotland Yard—and it is fair to say of the police officer concerned that he made a search, but it is not altogether surprising that nothing was found in this case—and contact with local informants to see whether additional information is available or whether such information as has been received can be verified.

In this case, there was no attempt to find corroborative evidence. The officer concerned, felt, wrongly, that the overriding need was to act quickly, and he should not have acted in the way that he did. He should have checked his information in the ways that I have indicated. If he had, the incident would never have occurred.

Viscount Lambton

I must interrupt the hon. and learned Gentleman, because this is one of the silliest speeches that I have ever heard. If the officer concerned received the information at 11 o'clock at night, how could he check and watch the premises until 12 o'clock before making a demand for an inquiry?

Mr. Taverne

The hon. Gentleman is not helping the debate. His hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford made a fair speech and raised a number of valid points, but the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Viscount Lamb-ton) raises matters which are not relevant. I have made it clear that the officer was wrong to act without corroboration. The hon. Gentleman is pointing to the fact that the officer did not do what could have been done. He might well have waited and should have waited until morning to see whether he could check on the premises, if by then he had not discovered who Lady Diana Cooper was. The officer acted on his own. He made some effort to get guidance, but could not because his senior officers were engaged on a major inquiry. As a result, he went to a magistrate and applied for a search warrant.

As the hon. Member for Chelmsford his pointed out, the ultimate authority for the issue of a warrant rests with the magistrate, but he has to rely on the information and, to an extent, on the judgment of the officer applying for the warrant. Certainly the Commissioner of Police regards it as a police responsibility not to apply for a warrant without first taking all reasonable steps to check the reliability of the information on which the application is based. The Commissioner regrets that insufficient steps were taken in this case to check the reliability of the information on the basis of which the warrant was applied for, and that the magistrate was asked to issue a warrant.

In another place, a discussion took place on the action of the magistrate in granting the warrant. Inquiries have been made about the practice of magistrates, and it has been pointed out that, from the magistrate's point of view, what he does when he grants a warrant on a police statement is merely what he is expected to do in many other cases in which applications are made ex parte. He is relying on sworn evidence from a source which he has no reason to suspect. But the mistake in this case was that the application by the police officer gave no indication that the source which he said he believed to be reliable was an anonymous one.

Viscount Lambton


Mr. Taverne

No, I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. St. John-Stevas


Mr. Taverne

Certainly I will give way to the hon. Member for Chelmsford.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Surely there must be some duty on a magistrate to make a judiciary inquiry and to assess the evidence in some way. If that is not the practice of magistrates, the inclusion by Parliament of the intervention of a magistrate is a pure formality and of no effect.

Mr. Taverne

The magistrate has to satisfy himself that the person making the application is a person whose word can be believed. If he has no reason to believe the person making the application, he should not grant a warrant. In many cases, with the many inquiries which come, particularly to Bow Street—this is not a matter for the Home Office, but we have information about this from the magistrates—the magistrates look at what is stated on the form, they look at the person before them, and, as with other ex parte applications, if they have no reason to disbelieve what is stated there, and it gives grounds for action, they grant a warrant.

In this case the police officer made a mistake. He considered that he had reason to believe that there was reliable information, when there was none. In this situation, quite clearly some action is called for. I have made inquiries into other cases in which it has been alleged the police have acted on anonymous tips. As far as I have been able to discover, on those occasions the police have made further inquiries, and have obtained corroborative evidence before they have applied for a warrant.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary intends to draw the attention of chief officers of police to this incident, because, as the hon. Member for Chelmsford has rightly said, it illustrates the need for police officers to take all reasonable steps to check information before they take the serious further step of applying for a search warrant. It also points to the need—and my right hon. Friend intends to draw this to their attention—to consult a senior officer in case of doubt or difficulty, because in this case the action was taken by a station sergeant. It is very important to reassure magistrates that what is said by police officers can be relied on.

Viscount Lambton

How can one check anonymous information?

Mr. Taverne

If the hon. Gentleman had not been so obstructive, unlike his hon. Friend, he would have heard me say that there are many ways in which one checks this information from other sources. Watch can be kept on premises to see whether a large number of people are going in and coming out who may be known to be drug takers. Some of them are known to the police. Again, searches are made at Scotland Yard to see whether the person against whom the allegation is made has a record of this kind of offence. The police also have to rely on their own information. There are some local informants on whom they can rely, and if the information is confirmed from a number of different sources, there is some sort of corroborative evidence. What they should not do is to act, as happened in this case, simply on an anonymous telephone call without seeking to check it from any other source.

It is therefore important that this incident should be drawn to the attention of chief officers, and that the practice in all cases should be to check anonymous information. If this is done, the magistrates can be reassured in relying on the word of police officers, as they should normally be entitled to do.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes past Twelve o'clock.