HC Deb 18 December 1973 vol 866 cc1307-18

11.24 p.m.

Mr. Charles Loughlin (Gloucestershire, West)

This afternoon the Home Secretary and the House paid tribute to the courage and efficiency of policemen involved in one of the latest bomb outrages. I think that all of us, individually, pay tribute to our policemen at some time. It is ironic that tonight I have to raise the case of a policeman who has been denied elementary justice by the Chief Constable of Gloucestershire and the Secretary of State for the Home Department.

Police Constable T. C. Powell, now attached to the Cinderford police station, has been a member of the Gloucestershire police force since November 1951. He was promoted to the rank of sergeant in 1966, and demoted to police constable in June 1972. That demotion arose from an incident to which I shall refer later. This man has been in the police force for 22 years. At a recent disciplinary hearing he was described, not by the defence, as being a "good average policeman".

On the night of 6th–7th May this man was off duty. With his wife, he spent the latter part of the evening at the Lydney Police Club. Lydney was the station to which he was then attached. In the club on that occasion were a number of police officers and a number of civilians, all of whom were on the premises legitimately. At about 1.20 a.m. on Sunday 7th May, a Superintendent Gwilliam, who was off duty, entered the club and is alleged to have charged persons present with drinking after hours, though there is not, and never has been, any suggestion that PC Powell or his wife were drinking at that time. It would be of interest to know why a superintendent who was off duty ever even called at the police club at that time on a Sunday morning.

Disciplinary proceedings were taken by the chief constable against PC Powell, PC Parfit and PC Handy. At the hearing on Wednesday 21st June PC Powell was demoted from the rank of sergeant by the chief constable. PC Parfit had his rate of pay reduced by one increment, and PC Handy was exonerated. Let me make it absolutely clear that PC Parfit denied that he was drinking, and that that is borne out by other witnesses at the hearing.

I have read and re-read the transcript of evidence at these proceedings. The decisions on the basis of the evidence advanced were a complete travesty of justice. It is well known locally that Superintendent Gwilliam has threatened to, and was clearly out to, break Sergeant Powell, as he then was. They had clashed time and again. Gwilliam's evidence was, in my view and in the light of the evidence of other witnesses, a pack of lies from beginning to end. He was intent solely on the destruction of PC Powell. Even in answer to the first material question at the hearing, Gwilliam said I went to the police station at Lydney. Outside the station in Bathurst Road I saw Sergeant Powell's car parked near the rear entrance. That fact had nothing to do with the hearing, but it is a good indicator of the superintendent's attitude of mind, in particular to Sergeant Powell.

In law there can be no offence in persons being on the premises of a registered club at any hour of the day or night. An offence can be committed only if alcohol is supplied or consumed outside the permitted hours. The basis of the two charges against PC Powell under the police discipline regulations was that he was present at a time when he knew that intoxicating liquor was being supplied and consumed illegally and that he, as the senior police officer present, took no action to uphold the law.

PC Parfit was found guilty of consuming beer, which he denies. I have already referred to that. The proof of the disciplinary charges rested upon the proof that breaches of the law had taken place. No person, civilian or otherwise, present at the time of the alleged offence, including PC Powell and PC Parfit, has ever appeared before a court of law in connection with these alleged offences.

The Minister will know that Home Office Circular 108/1972 clearly lays down that chief constables have no discretion in deciding what offence alleged to have been committed by a police officer shall be referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions. The offences must always be referred, even minor cases or traffic offences. I want to know why these cases were not referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Is the Chief Constable of Gloucester a law unto himself? Why were no charges brought against the civilians who were in the club at the time and were alleged to be drinking according to Superintendent Gwilliam's evidence? If the chief constable took the view that there was insufficient evidence to secure a conviction against the civilians, according to Superintendent Gwilliam's evidence, why did he, in effect, prosecute by disciplinary action two of his own officers and find them both guilty on the basis of some evidence by the same witnes while there was certainly no corroborative evidence from any of the other witnesses at the hearing?

The evidence of Superintendent Gwilliam was so puerile and stupid that he claimed that he took no action against the civilians, and did not even take their names and addresses, because—and I quote—he "feared physical violence". There were eight people in the club—four police officers, the club steward, two civilians and a policeman's wife, and, to quote him Superintendent Gwilliam was "fearful" of "physical violence". On the evidence of this man, and of this man alone, Sgt. Powell was broken. He lost his position, his pride and his future. I estimate—and it has been so estimated by others besides myself—that he lost in wages and pension values about £6,000—this for a man who had previously served 20 years' good and faithful service in the police force.

With the full backing of the Police Federation, an appeal was launched with the Home Secretary. Having seen a copy of the appeal statement, I cannot see on what grounds it could possibly have been rejected. The Minister has not seen fit to give his reasons. Nor did he use his powers to order an oral inquiry when Gwilliam could have been cross-examined on oath. What is most disquieting is the fact that new evidence was available to the Home Secretary which was not available at the hearing before the chief constable. The names of three additional witnesses, each of whom were senior members of the Gloucestershire Police Force, each prepared to give evidence of Superintendent Gwilliam's fixation about closing the Lydney Police Club, one of whom could have thrown light on the superintendent's mental instability, were submitted to the Home Secretary. The Home Secretary refused to take that evidence. No statements were taken from those officers, nor were they ever interviewed. They were, and are, senior members of the force. Their evidence, I understand, would have been based upon reports submitted to the chief constable prior to the incident at the police club, arising out of which the action to which I have referred was taken.

After discussing the case with the Minister of State, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Alfred Morris), who has collaborated with me throughout, I interviewed the chief constable. I went to try to get a solution to the case without undue publicity, and I made some suggestions to the chief constable about how this could be done. But I also asked that I should be allowed to interview the three officers concerned in the presence of a senior officer nominated by the chief constable. I was refused such permission.

If the most hardened criminal in this country, charged with, say, grievous bodily harm or even murder, is convicted at a lower court, no matter what his police record may be, if additional evidence is subsequently forthcoming to enable him to appeal, no impediment of any kind is placed in his way to secure the presentation of that additional evidence. If this principle applies to criminals, it must surely equally apply to a policeman whose job is to protect society from such people. Yet both the chief constable and the Home Secretary can deny with impunity natural justice to a man who, far from being a criminal, can only be described as a very good police officer.

It really is shocking if we have a situation in which police officers who do a really first-class job are placed in a less favourable position than the most miserable criminal. It is shocking, and a pretty bad scandal.

I know that the Minister of State has seen the statement of case. I have not attempted to go through all the evidence because it would take me an hour—although I should be delighted to do so. I have simply stated the bare bones of the case—the question of evidence which was faulty in law; the fact that the chief constable misdirected himself; that there was no corroboration of any kind of the evidence of the superintendent who, we claim, had a fixation about closing this club—indeed, we believe that he was suffering from mental instability. It was on the evidence of that man, and that man alone, that P.C. Powell was demoted.

I claim that the Minister should have afforded an opportunity for P.C. Powell to test the new evidence which was submitted. Even at this late stage I beg the Secretary of State to examine this case again, to let the additional evidence be examined and let justice not only be done but be seen to be done. This case and the refusal of the Minister to give reasons for his decisions have caused great disquiet and discontent among police officers.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe will be able to catch your eye for two minutes, Mr. Speaker, and I hope also that the Minister of State will take my plea to the Secretary of State and ask him to reconsider this case.

11.37 p.m.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

This is my hon. Friend's debate. The House will agree that he has made a powerful case, which I hope the Minister of State will want to consider most carefully. I trust that he will also now be able to respond favourably at least to some of the arguments that my hon. Friend adduced. As the Minister knows, representative people in the Police Federation have expressed deep concern about the case of my hon. Friend's constituent. In my capacity as Parliamentary Adviser to the Police Federation of England and Wales, I have myself made representations about the case to the Secretary of State.

There have been many extremely disquieting cases of disciplinary action which, in the view of officers of the federation, clearly merited a review tribunal. The Minister of State will be aware that there has not been a review tribunal for several years. There are about 30 disputed cases a year. Thus there have been a disturbingly large number of disputed cases since there was last a review tribunal. There is cause here for legitimate concern, which the Minister of State would be unwise to ignore.

In this case my hon. Friend is simply asking the Minister to look again at the evidence available to him. There are strong grounds for his doing so.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the kindly reference he made to my interest in this case.

11.40 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Mark Carlisle)

The hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Loughlin) has raised this evening what is always an unfortunate case; that is, one in which a police officer who has risen to the rank of sergeant has been found guilty in disciplinary proceedings of offences of discreditable conduct and neglect of duty, and his chief constable has considered it necessary to reduce him to the rank of constable. As I said, cases of this kind are always unfortunate and regrettable when they relate—as this one does—to a man who, as the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West has reminded us, has had 22 years' service in the force.

Of course I am grateful to the hon. Member for his general comments at the opening of his speech about the police force of this country, but I think that, on reflection, he will agree that some of the language which he chose to use tonight about the hearing of this disciplinary matter, both in front of the Chief Constable of Gloucestershire and on appeal before my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, was both unfortunate and unjustified, and I must say to the hon. Gentleman, who, as he said, came to see me about this case, that I strongly resent phrases such as "a complete travesty of justice" which he used. Under the cover of the privilege of this House, he has chosen to make the most vicious and most virulent attack that could possibly be made upon the character of a senior member of the police force of this country.

I will remind the hon. Member of what he said, since I made certain notes. He said that Superintendent Gwilliam's evidence was a pack of lies, not that he was mistaken or that he may have misunderstood what he saw. He said that his attitude was both puerile and stupid, and I think he said twice that he questioned the superintendent's mental stability. I would remind the hon. Gentleman that he has chosen to make those remarks about a serving superintendent in the force of the county of which he represents a part in this House. I only hope that he has the courage to repeat those words outside this House, and that he has the basis to justify the comments that he has made.

The task of the Home Secretary, the task of junior Ministers, indeed the task of the Department in acting as the final court of appeal in matters of police discipline, is never easy. But we do our best. We attempt to do justice as we see it. We attempt to review the hearing before the chief constable, and to assess what we believe is the justice of the case. But, of course, in looking at cases of this kind we take into account that at the hearing where an officer is represented the chief constable, with all the experience of his force, has the opportunity of assessing the individual officers who give evidence before him, and the Chief Constable of Gloucestershire made it quite clear, having heard all the conflicting evidence and the cross-examination in this case, that he chose to accept the word of Superintendent Gwilliam. So I do not see that there was any basis on which the Home Secretary would have been justified in going against the view which the chief constable took.

Mr. Loughlin

Can the Minister of State tell me why, if there was a breach of the law in the case of P.C. Powell or P.C. Parfit—and it will be remembered that P.C. Parfit was charged with consuming beer—the matter was not referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions by the chief constable?

Mr. Carlisle

I shall come to that in a moment. I was still dealing with what I considered to be the wholly unjustified attack on the integrity of the superintendent by the hon. Member.

May I remind the hon. Gentleman of the events leading up to these charges, which happened as long ago as May 1972, as he said, at the police club in Lydney. Sgt. Powell, as he then was, was present in the club—and there is no dispute about this—with his wife from about 10.30 until Superintendent Gwilliam entered the club at 1.20 a.m. The licensed hours of that club ended at 11 p.m., and the charge of discreditable conduct against Sgt. Powell was based on the allegation that he was present in the club with members of the general public and two members of the force junior to himself in rank and at a time when intoxicating liquor was being consumed outside permitted hours.

The evidence that consumption was taking place in the Lydney Police Club on the evening in question not at just after 11 p.m. but two hours and 20 minutes later was the evidence given by Superintendent Gwilliam, who testified at the hearing that when he entered the club one of the police constables was in the act of drinking a glass of beer. That was disputed, I accept, but there was never any dispute that at that stage there was a full pint of beer before Parfit and a half pint in the vicinity of other people in the club. The "neglect of duty" charge was based on the fact that the then Sgt. Powell failed to take appropriate action to stop breaches of the law taking place and, in particular, to intervene when liquor was supplied to one of the civilians.

I accept that the evidence about the sale of liquor was in some respects vague, but the steward confirmed that he had served drinks out of hours and thought that the last round was served at about 11.45 in the evening. The hon. Member may laugh, but even if the steward was believed, and he was a witness on behalf of Sergeant Powell, that would mean liquor was sold three-quarters of an hour after licensing hours had ended. After hearing the evidence the chief constable not only accepted Superintendent Gwilliam's evidence that liquor was being consumed by one of the constables, but was satisfied from the evidence as a whole that in a room 27 feet by 17½ feet it was inconceivable that liquor could have been sold and consumed after the licensing hours had finished at 11 o'clock without the sergeant's knowledge when the sergeant himself had agreed that he was present on the premises. Therefore, the chief constable found the sergeant guilty.

The hon. Member asked why criminal proceedings were not taken in this matter. I accept, of course, that there is feeling on behalf of the Police Federation, to which the hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Alfred Morris) has referred, that cases in which what is alleged against a police officer is criminal conduct should be subject to criminal rather than disciplinary proceedings so that the accused may have the same protection by way of burden and standard of proof as would a member of the public charged in a criminal court.

In Constable Powell's case it has been suggested that the chief constable should have reported the facts to the Director of Public Prosecutions for prosecution as an offence under the Licensing Act against the others who were present in the club at the time. The law provides that if an investigation arises from a complaint by a member of the public the chief constable must send a report to the Director of Public Prosecutions unless he is positively satisfied that no criminal offence has been committed. In other cases—that is, where the initiative for investigation has come from entirely within the force—it is a matter entirely for the chief constable to decide whether or not the Director of Public Prosecutions should be consulted.

I believe that it would be utterly unreasonable—certainly from the point of view of the officer concerned—to have a situation in which what might appear from an internal investigation to be a breach of the law that would justify, within a disciplined service, a disciplinary charge against an officer, should automatically be required to be referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions and taken up as a criminal prosecution with the grave consequences that might arise for that officer.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that Sergeant Powell, as a result of those disciplinary proceedings, was demoted to the rank of constable. If criminal proceedings had been taken against an officer concerned in a case of this nature and a conviction had been recorded, it would be almost inevitable that that officer would be required to resign from the force. It is not necessarily, as the hon. Gentleman seems to think, in the interests of any individual member of a disciplined force that whenever a technical criminal offence may be committed he should be proceeded against for a criminal offence rather than the offence being treated as a matter of discipline.

Mr. Loughlin

Is the regulation giving permissive powers to the chief constable part of Circular 108 to which I referred?

Mr. Carlisle

I cannot give that answer without notice, but what I can tell the hon. Gentleman is that we have issued a circular to chief constables recommending that whenever the possibility arises of a police officer being charged with a criminal offence the case should nevertheless be referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions for advice, if it is not of a trivial nature, although the complaint has come up as an internal matter.

What I am saying is that in such a case as this, of a breach of the licensing laws, one must weigh in the balance whether it is right that the matter should be dealt with by the full weight of the criminal law, with prosecution and all that would follow from conviction, or should be dealt with as the chief constable chose to deal with it in this case; namely, as a disciplinary matter against two members of his force whom he was able to deal with in that way, without requiring them to resign from the force.

Moreover, even if a case is referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions for advice, that does not mean that the result will be either the institution of criminal proceedings or no action at all. Where the conduct complained of has not adversely affected anyone outside the police service and there are no circumstances which appear to warrant criminal proceedings, the Director of Public Prosecutions may suggest that the matter would be better dealt with by disciplinary proceedings.

That does not mean that the accused officer has to accept a second-class standard of justice. The elements of any disciplinary offence may be different from those of the relevant criminal offence, but the standard of proof is no lower in disciplinary proceedings. I cannot accept, as the Police Federation urges, that all allegations against police officers which could form the basis of criminal charges should be dealt with in the criminal courts. I do not necessarily believe that that would be in the interests of the officers concerned. But I understand that this whole issue is now being considered by a working party on the police discipline code, on which the Federation is represented along with associations representing police authorities, chief officers and superintendents.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe asked why a tribunal was not set up in this case. Whether a particular case is of such a nature that it can properly be determined without the taking of evidence by a tribunal is a matter for judgment in each case. In this case, the Home Secretary decided that there was no justification for a tribunal—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock 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 six minutes to Twelve o'clock.