HC Deb 02 December 1971 vol 827 cc652-7
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Reginald Maudling)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I will now answer Question No. 28.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and I have considered the report of a working party which examined the procedure for investigating complaints against the police.

We agree with those recommendations made by the working party which aim at bringing about substantial improvements within the existing framework. We propose to cover these points in a circular about which we are consulting the bodies represented on the police advisory boards. They include recommending police authorities to develop their supervisory rôle under the Police Acts; encouraging chief officers of police to borrow officers from other forces to conduct investigations of serious complaints; and advising them to take greater trouble in explaining to complainants what action has been taken on their complaints.

As police authority for the Metropolitan Police District, I have myself agreed with the Commissioner of Police that serious complaints against his officers will in future be investigated by officers from other forces; and I have approved organisational changes to enable the handling of complaints to be concentrated in a single unit directly responsible to the Deputy Commissioner.

My right hon. Friend and I are well aware of concern that, in addition, an independent element should be brought into the handling of complaints. It is already a statutory requirement that a complaint about any behaviour which may involve a criminal offence must be referred to the independent judgment of the Director of Public Prosecutions, or in Scotland the procurator-fiscal. I am making it clear to all concerned that, once a case has been referred to the Director, it is his responsibility to consider whether further inquiries should be made or additional statements taken, and that it is open to him to propose that further inquiries should be undertaken by an officer from another force. My right hon. Friend is satisfied that investigation of all such complaints in Scotland is entirely under the control of the procurator-fiscal. It is further being arranged that the Director or the procurator-fiscal will in future himself inform a complainant direct of his decision whether or not the police officer complained of should be prosecuted.

In the more serious cases, therefore, the crucial decision is reserved for the independent judgment of the Director or the procurator-fiscal. The working party considered whether an independent element might also be brought into the handling of less serious complaints which at most involved the possibility of some breach of discipline. Some members thought that it might be possible for the report of the police officer investigating a complaint to be referred to an independent solicitor for a confidential opinion on what disciplinary charges, if any, should be brought. An alternative suggestion was that the procedure in individual cases might be open to examination by an outside review body after proceedings on the case had been concluded.

But my right hon. Friend and I believe that the suggestions are open to considerable practical objections and that they would not command general confidence. Where no possibility of a criminal charge is involved, the chief officer of police, who is responsible for discipline, must be responsible for what is done about complaints, subject, of course, to the continuing supervision of the police authority.

Mr. Fowler

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on making that very important statement. Does he agree that the additional checks he has announced have important advantages for both the public and the police: for the public, to establish the complete impartiality of the police; for the police, to establish what many of us already believe, that the general standards of the British police are exceptionally high?

Mr. Maudling

I hope and believe that that will be so. I know that the police themselves are very anxious not only that justice should be done, but that it should be seen to be done in all cases.

Mr. Callaghan

Am I to conclude from the right hon. Gentleman's answer that the report of the working party was not unanimous? Does the right hon. Gentleman intend to publish the report of the working party, and will he do so?

While it seems, though I have never doubted it myself, that the procedure in criminal cases is satisfactory in terms of references to the Director of Public Prosecutions, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his answer will not remove the disquiet which is felt about the police judging their own cases? I do not think that the procedure which the right hon. Gentleman is proposing will remove that. Is it possible for him to look once again at the possibility of introducing an independent element at some stage in the consideration, either of the procedure or at the time that charges are brought, to determine which charges shall be brought, while leaving unimpaired the chief constable's right, which must be a right in a disciplined force, to determine what is the ultimate answer? If the right hon. Gentleman is to give general confidence not only to the police but to the public, there will be greater satisfaction if at some stage in the procedure an independent element is introduced.

Mr. Maudling

It was always the understanding that the working party's report would not be published. It did its work on that basis. Therefore, I cannot disclose the contents of the report.

The right hon. Gentleman's second point is a very difficult matter. I am concerned both with assuring people that complaints against the police are investigated properly and with the morale of the police. It is too easy to complain about the police. Anyone can always make a complaint. If he scores with his complaint, he wins; if it is shown to be foolish, he loses nothing.

In a disciplined force the man responsible for discipline must take decisions about disciplining his own members. I call the right hon. Gentleman's attention to what I said in the last sentence of my original answer about the continuing supervision of the police authority. Supervision is necessary in these matters. The police authority is the right body to do that supervising.

Mr. Callaghan

While acknowledging what the right hon. Gentleman says in the last words of his original answer, may I ask whether he will take it from me that the disquiet will not die down as a result of his answer? Will he consider returning to the working party and seeking its permission to publish its report so that it can be seen what considerations were involved? It seems to me that the answer to my first question is that the working party was not unanimous.

Mr. Maudling

It is quite possible that it was not unanimous. People of independent judgment often have different views. However, I think that this is the right way in which to handle the matter. I believe that we should see how it works. I believe, further, that it will deal with the existing anxiety. If it does not, we shall have to think again about the practice.

Mr. Burden

I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the irregularities that have recently taken place in the Leeds police force, particularly the fact that the Chief Constable of Leeds stated on television only a few nights ago that he would resist any investigation into the Leeds police force. Is it not right and proper that when there is anxiety about a particular police force the police authority or some other authority should have the right to go above the chief constable to institute investigations? The main point which was disquieting to anybody who saw that television broadcast was that the Chief Constable implied that the standards of police could be different when they were on duty and in uniform from when they were going about as private citizens. I ask my right hon. Friend to get a re-run of that interview.

Mr. Maudling

There is some doubt about what the Chief Constable said. I have asked the police authority to come and discuss this matter with me. After that discussion I shall take whatever action I think is necessary.

Mr. John Fraser

Will the Home Secretary look again at the question of the independent investigation? If the element of independence is to be with the Director of Public Prosecutions, it may be wholly unfair to a police officer who has already run the gamut of an investigation and then has to be further investigated by the Director; so in some circumstances it is unfair to a police officer.

At the same time, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is a crisis of confidence in the police, particularly among members of the coloured community, and that this will never be assuaged unless there is an element of independent investigation at the beginning? If that element is built in, it will make for better confidence on the part of both the police and the general public, because co-operation with and confidence in the police by the whole community, including the coloured community, is essential for the maintenance of law and order.

Mr. Maudling

As I said, it is the case now, and it will be even more so under the new arrangements, that where criminal offences or possible criminal offences are involved the Director of Public Prosecutions must deal with the matter. I do not accept the argument about a crisis of confidence in the police. I believe that, by and large, our police forces command enormous support and confidence from the people.

Mr. Braine

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the introduction of an element of independent inquiry will be welcomed by the police and by the public—by the police because of the triviality of many of the complaints reaching them, and by the public who want to be assured that the police are not judge and jury in their own case? Nevertheless, is my right hon. Friend aware also that his readiness this afternoon to see how this works out in the light of experience will be generally welcomed by the police themselves?

Mr. Maudling

As I said, I am sure that the police themselves are anxious that the right thing should be done and should be seen to be done. It is very much in their interests that it should be so.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

The matter raised about the Leeds police is an important matter in the area. Can we get it clear that the procedure that the right hon. Gentleman has announced today has nothing to do with any inquiry that the right hon. Gentleman could raise in the future, that that would come under Section 32, concerned with the administration of the police, that he has explained clearly his view on that, and that the hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden), who raised the question of the Leeds police today, raised it in the wrong context, because the police have already appeared in the courts? It is important that no one should think that anything that the right hon. Gentleman has said today could affect any inquiry that might be made into the Leeds police.

Mr. Maudling

That is quite correct. On the question of the Leeds police, there is a feeling that in general there is something that should be investigated. I intend to determine my own attitude on this and how to use my powers after consulting the police authority. I was speaking today about general cases.