HC Deb 05 December 1975 vol 901 cc2076-171

Order for Second Reading read.

11.7 a.m.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Roy Jenkins)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am glad to be able to move the Second Reading of this Bill, which comes after much debate and a long period of discussion extending over many years. This Bill is designed to introduce an effective independent element into the handling of complaints against the police. There has been for some time past a wide measure of agreement that this is needed. There has, however, been less agreement upon how it should be achieved.

I believe that the Bill offers an effective and practical way of proceeding, balancing the need to satisfy serious complaints with the need neither to hobble the police nor to burden them and ourselves with an excessive bureaucratic machine. The Bill also preserves what are important principles from the point of view of the police. There is the rule of no double jeopardy and the authority of chief officers for discipline within their forces.

I make it clear at the outset that these proposals do not arise—certainly not in my mind and not, I believe, in the minds of many who support them—from any general lack of confidence in the police. I am aware that it is sometimes suggested that some members of minority groups do not share our trust.

More particularly, however, there has long been unease that the handling of complaints against the police appears to be, and is, largely in their own hands. There is, therefore, a position in which the police can be seen as judge and jury in their own court. It is essentially a matter of seeing that justice is done as well as believing—as I do—that in the great number of cases justice is done. It is, therefore, important that everything possible should be done to allay that unease. In this connection it is essential that people should know that if they have a complaint it will not be rejected without being scrutinised by someone other than the police.

On the other hand, it is equally important that we should do nothing, especially in these times of stress and violence, to undermine the morale of the police or hinder them in their vital tasks. Nor should we add more than is absolutely necessary to the time or cost of examining complaints. While there is general agreement with these propositions, there has been less certainty about the way they should be realised. There has been a long history of consideration of various schemes.

I should like to acknowledge the part played by my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead), who introduced one of the early Bills on this subject. I understand that he is at present abroad. I am sure that, if he were anywhere near, this is an occasion when he would certainly be in the House. The right hon. Member for Carshalton (Mr. Carr) also greatly advanced the matter by announcing, on behalf of the previous Government, the principle of an independent element. But it seemed to me in my consideration of the subject that an essential ingredient of any scheme, if it was to command public confidence, was that it should come into play whilst a complaint was still under consideration and not merely in an ex post facto way. An inquest after the event, with no power to influence it, would not suffice.

In July 1974, nearly 18 months ago, I announced the outline of such a scheme. On the basis of those proposals, detailed consultations—very detailed, and fairly long-drawn-out—were held with representatives of the police service and police authorities, and a year later I was able to announce a revised scheme with significant changes in it. The consultations were far from meaningless. I think that it is a simpler, more practical and more economic scheme. That is the scheme which the present legislation is intended to bring into effect.

No proposals can fully satisfy all the parties concerned. In particular, mine have not met the wishes of the local bodies, two-thirds elected councillors and one-third magistrates, which are the police authorities outside the metropolis. Their representatives readily accepted the need for an independent element, but they took the view that, since they already had responsibility under Section 50 of the 1964 Act to keep themselves informed of the way in which complaints were dealt with by their chief officer, they should be entrusted with any new procedure which might be introduced.

I have considered the views of the police authorities very carefully, because I attach importance to police authorities and I want them to play a significant réle in the police scene. I recognise the value of the general supervision of the complaints procedure within their areas as as essential part of their duty under the 1964 Act. But I do not think that a police authority can be seen, or can be expected to be seen, to be wholly independent in relation to the force it is required to provide. That is why a new, independent body covering the country as a whole is proposed under the Bill.

It may be helpful to the House if I give a brief account of how the police complaints system works at present without the Bill, since the new arrangements have been designed to dovetail with it. Section 49 of the Police Act 1964 places responsibility for the recording and investigation of complaints on the chief officer of the force concerned. He is required to appoint an investigating officer, who at present, except in certain specified circumstances, must be of the rank of superintendent or above and from a different division of the force. In the Metropolitan Police, where a sub-division can be as large as a division in some other forces, the investigating officer may be from the same division, but not in the same chain of command, and he may be of the rank of chief inspector.

The investigating officer's report is considered by the chief officer or his deputy. Unless the chief officer or his deputy is satisfied that no criminal offence has been committed by the officer who is the subject of complaint, he must refer the report to the Director of Public Prosecutions for his decision whether or not the officer should be prosecuted. Subject to this, the chief officer or his deputy considers whether the investigation has revealed disciplinary offences. If it has, he can bring the appropriate charges, provided that these are not similar to criminal charges which the Director, on evidential grounds, has decided should not be brought. That is in order to deal with the question of double jeopardy.

If, after any necessary reference to the Director of Public Prosecutions, the chief officer decides that no disciplinary offence is involved, he informs the complainant and the officer concerned accordingly, and that is the end of the matter. The proposed new arrangements will come into play only after a chief officer has complied with all the requirements of Section 49 concerned with the recording and investigation of the complaint, and after any necessary reference to the Director of Public Prosecutions. This means that the initial investigation of complaints will remain with the police and that the Director's rôle is not affected.

It may help to put matters into perspective for the House to know that in 1974 there was a total of 17,500 complaints against the police, of which one-quarter were withdrawn. In about 10 per cent. of the cases where the investigation had been completed by the end of the year, the complaints were found to be substantiated. Formal disciplinary proceedings were taken in 185 cases. In addition there were 31 convictions for criminal offences and 48 for traffic offences.

I turn now to the proposals themselves. The main feature of the new scheme is that an independent Police Complaints Board will be established. The Board will concern itself only with complaints which have first been dealt with under Section 49 of the 1964 Act and which are against officers below the rank of chief officer—that is, below the rank of chief constable, deputy chief constable or assistant chief constable, since all holders of those three ranks are within the term "chief officer". Complaints against those senior officers will continue to be dealt with by the police authority, and any disciplinary charges will be heard by an independent person specially appointed for the purpose. The Board will have no standing in relation to other matters of internal police discipline.

Once the existing requirements of Section 49 have been met, the chief officer—or, in practice, the deputy chief constable, because the duty is normally so delegated—will, unless the complaint is withdrawn, consider whether disciplinary charges should be brought against the officer concerned. It will be apparent from the figures I have given that following the great majority of complaints no disciplinary charges are preferred. It is in these cases that a most important part of the new scheme comes into play.

Mr. Michael Alison (Barkston Ash)

What happens where disciplinary charges have been preferred in respect of matters complained of, and the accused has admitted the charges and has not withdrawn his admission? Does the complaint then have to go to the Director of Public Prosecutions, or is it entirely dealt with internally? It obviously does not have to go to the Board.

Mr. Jenkins

It does not have to go to the Board, because it can then be dealt with internally, although it might be so serious that it would have to go to the Director of Public Prosecutions. That would depend on the nature of the offence which the officer admitted.

It is in those cases, the great majority, where no disciplinary charges are preferred, that the new scheme comes importantly into play. If the deputy chief constable concludes that there should be no disciplinary proceedings, he must first send a copy of the complaint, the investigating officer's report and any supporting documents, together with his reasons for his conclusion, to the Board.

The Board will then consider the case. It will be able to obtain from the police any further information which it may reasonably require. If the Board agrees that there should be no disciplinary proceedings, it will inform the complainant and the deputy chief constable will inform the officer concerned.

If the Board thinks that there should be disciplinary proceedings, it will first recommend to the deputy chief constable the charges which it thinks should be brought. I envisage that there will be negotiations between the deputy chief constable and the Board at this point to resolve any differing views, but in the last resort—I do not expect it to happen often—the Board will be able to direct that disciplinary proceedings should be brought.

Mr. Bruce Douglas-Mann (Mitcham and Morden)

Is there at that stage any further reference to the complainant? Does the complainant have any opportunity to make representations to the Board about its decision or the chief officer's decision?

Mr. Jenkins

No, not at that stage. The complainant has made his complaint, it has been looked at by the police, and the deputy chief constable has decided that there should be no disciplinary proceedings. The Board takes a different view, initially at any rate, and then proceeds to implement that view. I shall continue to describe the position.

I turn to the question of the smaller number of cases in which the deputy chief constable decides on disciplinary procedures. The Board will have no power to review this decision. The deputy chief constable will normally serve notice on the accused officer in the usual way and inform the complainant. If the officer admits the charge, he will be dealt with by his chief officer, as at present. If he denies the charge, the deputy chief constable will be required to send the papers to the Board. The Board will then decide whether the case should be heard by the chief officer alone, as is usual, or by a disciplinary tribunal consisting of the chief officer plus two members of the Board who have not previously been concerned with the case. When the police say that there should be disciplinary proceedings the Board will be able to use its judgment as to whether the matter is of such a serious nature that the normal police procedure should be supplemented by two members of the independent Board.

The Board's criterion for deciding whether it is desirable that a tribunal should be held will be whether there are exceptional circumstances, such as the seriousness or complexity of the case, or any public disquiet. If the Board itself has directed that charges be brought, a tribunal will always be held. It would then clearly be invidious for the chief officer to hear the charges sitting alone—in other words, when the chief officer's initial judgment was that disciplinary proceedings should not follow.

The general procedure at a disciplinary hearing before one of the new tribunals will be the same as it is now before a chief officer. The tribunal as a whole will decide on guilt, if necessary by a majority. The decision on punishment, however, will be for the chief officer alone, after consultation with the other two members. This is consistent with the principle that the chief officer should be, and should be seen to be, the disciplinary authority for his force.

Some aspects of the scheme that I have outlined will be provided for in Regulations, while others will be provided for by direction to the Board and guidance to the police. In discussing the provisions of the Bill, to which I now turn, I shall try to indicate where the Bill is merely paving.

Mr. Alison

On a further point of clarification on the decision about the kind of investigation that should be held, I refer again to the case in which the chief officer of police decides to prefer charges and the constable has admitted the charges, so that under part of Clause 2 there is no need for the case to be referred to the Board. Does the Board then have the right to decide whether the chief officer's investigation of the admitted offence is heard by him or may be made subject to a tribunal hearing?

Mr. Jenkins

As the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, these are complicated provisions. If the accused admits the charge the question of the tribunal does not arise, but if he denies the charge—and this applies even when the chief officer has decided to bring disciplinary proceedings—it is for the Board, in its corporate capacity, or the members of the Board, to decide whether the hearing should be a police hearing or whether there are such exceptional circumstances relating to the seriousness or complexity of the case, or such wide public interest, as to make it desirable that the chief officer should be supplemented by two members of the Board, sitting as a tribunal of three.

Clause 1 sets up the Police Complaints Board and provides for its members to be appointed by the Secretary of State. We have not set down the exact size of the Board, but have simply provided that there must be at least nine members. That should permit us to respond to any change in the volume of work coming to the Board. What I envisage at present is a Board with the equivalent of nine full-time members, but as I think it important that the Board should have full-time and part-time members to ensure consistency of practice and to prevent its becoming too isolated from current social trends and attitudes, the numbers involved will clearly be somewhat larger than nine—something of the order of 14, that complement to be divided into the two categories.

I think that the Board's membership should be representative of a broad range of different walks of life. For the reasons I gave earlier, I do not propose to appoint to the Board serving police officers or serving members of police authorities. They are not statutorily barred by the provisions of the Bill, and I would not regard the fact of having been a member of a police authority—particularly a different one, in another part of the country—as necessarily precluding someone from being asked to undertake this work. However, in general I would not propose to appoint serving officers or serving members of police authorities.

By virtue of Clause 1(4) I shall be able to give to the Board the kind of general guidance that I already give to the police on detailed matters relating to complaints and discipline. This will help to ensure that the Board's examination of complaints, and, in particular, its role in relation to disciplinary charges, is discharged in a way that is consistent with existing practice, including the very important principle that no one should be exposed to double jeopardy. However, I shall have no power to direct the Board in respect of individual cases.

Clause 2 provides for the reference of cases to the Board, and Clause 3 sets out the powers of the Board in relation to such cases. As I have said, these new arrangements will come into play only after a chief officer has complied with all the requirements of Section 49 of the Police Act 1964. The position of the Director of Public Prosecutions is, therefore, entirely unaffected. The Director will continue, as now, to decide whether or not criminal proceedings are appropriate in the cases that are referred to him. Clause 2(2) provides that not until he has done so will the report on the case be referred to the Board. Nor will the Director's decision be open to review or comment by the Board, whose functions relate solely to discipline.

I move on to Clause 4 and the provisions of disciplinary tribunals. I have already explained when a tribunal will be held, its composition, and the way in which the decisions on guilt and punishment will be reached. I would only add that a tribunal will be exceptional, and we expect very few to be held.

The clause also makes special provision for the Metropolitan Police, whose disciplinary system differs in a number of respects from that of the other English and Welsh forces. In particular, the Commissioner himself does not normally hear disciplinary cases, whereas the chief officer does, outside London. The force is so large that it has its own internal system of disciplinary authorities, and appeals lie to the Commissioner himself against the decision of these authorities. It is unlikely, therefore, that the Commissioner would be chairman of a disciplinary tribunal although provision has been made for this under the Bill. The rank of those senior officers who may be chairmen will be specified in regulations under Clause 5.

Clause 4(4) deals with the position in which a chief constable from a force other than the accused's own is chairing the tribunal, as sometimes happens now in disciplinary hearings under the existing procedures. Charges must be heard by another chief officer where the accused officer's own chief officer is personally interested in the case or is a material witness, or where he considers that he has such detailed knowledge of a case that it would not be appropriate for him to conduct the hearing. The same considerations could arise in the case of a tribunal. The subsection, therefore, provides that where the chairman is not the accused's chief officer, the chairman will make a recommendation only as to punishment. This ensures, once again, that punishment is a matter for the chief officer of the accused's own force.

Clause 5 contains the regulation-making powers of the Bill in relation to complaints. As I have said, the purpose of these powers is to enable provision to be made for those aspects of the scheme I outlined earlier which are not covered in the Bill itself, together with various other related matters.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

I should have raised this matter earlier, when the right hon. Gentleman was dealing with Clause 4, but there is the practical question of the position of the chief officer when he is overruled by the Board and a tribunal is set up over which he has charge. When a majority decision is taken and the chief officer is the lone minority voice, he has the invidious task of punishing a policeman for an offence or complaint which he originally thought should not be referred to the Board. The police officer then finds that his chief officer is in the minority. As this is a complex matter, it would be helpful if the Home Secretary explained it now, so that it can be dealt with in the debate.

Mr. Jenkins

It is a complex matter. This is certainly a position that we should not like to see arise at all frequently. The difficulty which is inherent in this is impossible to avoid, compatible with an independent procedure in which the chief officer can be overruled, and compatible at the same time—something to which chief officers attach great importance, as the hon. Gentleman knows—with chief officers remaining the disciplinary authority so far as their force is concerned. In the rare cases in which that arises, the chief officer, in order to preserve the balance, will have to discipline himself, as it were. He will have to perform what will no doubt be a disagreeable duty to him. But that sometimes happens in disciplined services and other services. It will be appropriate for him to consult the other two members as to what the appropriate punishment should be. That is already provided for, and I have announced that. But the decision will be his.

Therefore, I think that in the rare cases in which that arises, the chief officer would have to consult, and strike what would seem a reasonable balance. I agree that there is genuine difficulty, but I think that I can solve it in a way compatible with a proper independent element only by undermining, to some extent, the disciplinary powers, within his force, of the chief officer. As chief officers attach great importance to this, I would prefer to preserve it, even though this procedure may, at the margin and occasionally, cause understandable difficulties to the chief officer.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

Will my right hon. Friend consider the question whether such tribunals are, in effect, appeal bodies not only for the police officer concerned but for the complainant? In effect, if the chief officer has decided that the complainant was not justified and that no action needed to be taken, and the complaints body says that action should be taken, a tribunal is then, in effect, an appellate body for the complainant. Is it not contrary to the principles of natural justice that the chief officer should decide that a complainant's complaint was not justified and that that chief officer should then have to decide, as the chairman of the appellate body, whether it was justified? In looking at this matter, are we not being unfair to the complainant? Is not the complainant also being deprived of an appeal procedure?

Mr. Jenkins

I have been anxious to look at this matter from both points of view. After a year's intense consideration, I think that I have struck the right balance. There may be arguments as to exactly where the balance should lie, but any alternative course would run one into difficulties. We can argue these points in Committee. There are undoubtedly points of balance to be struck. What I have been determined to do is to introduce real safeguards to the complainant without having a police force which, as I have said, is hobbled in carrying out its essential duties, and I think that this is about right from that point of view.

Mr. Frank Hooley (Sheffield, Heeley)

Does my right hon. Friend consider that the disciplinary powers of a commanding officer in the Army, for example, are undermined by the existence of independent courts martial, on which, as far as I know, the commanding officer does not sit? I really cannot follow my right hon. Friend's argument that disciplinary powers are undermined if, somehow, an independent body comes to the conclusion that a police officer has offended.

Mr. Jenkins

As I think my hon. Friend will appreciate, on consideration, courts martial in the Army are analogous to prosecutions brought by the Director in the case of the police. For this there is full provision, and the bodies are entirely independent. One is dealing with a criminal prosecution, which is quite a different matter.

I believe that I have moved a little way in dealing with Clause 5. Provision could be made for the Board to send at once to the chief officer concerned any complaint against a police officer which it receives direct, subject to the agreement of the complainant; and for the notification of the Board's action and decisions to the persons concerned. We have it in mind, for instance, that the Board should tell the complainant, and the deputy chief constable should tell the officer, as soon as the Board has agreed with the deputy chief constable that disciplinary charges are not to be brought. Where charges are to be brought, it will be for the deputy chief constable to inform both the complainant and the officer, and he will be required to inform them specifically whether the charges are brought at the Board's direction.

Regulations may also provide that the new scheme will not apply where complaints are withdrawn, or the complainant indicates that he does not wish any further action to be taken, or, at the Board's discretion, in the case of anonymous or repetitive complaints.

The House will know that there are in this country a number of employers' police forces—for example, the British Transport Commission Police—whose members, in certain defined areas, have the powers of constables. In many cases, these forces already observe the provisions of Section 49 of the 1964 Act—although they are not bound by it—in dealing with complaints against then-members. Accordingly, Clause 6 provides that they may enter into arrangements with the Board whereby it will be able to carry out a similar réle in relation to complaints against their members.

Provision is made in Clause 7 for the Board to make reports to me, including reports on any specific matters which I may ask it to inquire into.

Clause 8 makes the disclosure of information by the Board a criminal offence except in specified cases. The Board will be allowed, for example, to issue general statements relating to information that it has received, but these must not identify the person from whom the information was received or to whom it relates.

Part II of the Bill contains amendments to the existing discipline provisions. Clause 9 amends the powers of the Secretary of State to make discipline regulations under Section 33 of the Police Act 1964. In particular, it takes account of the new disciplinary tribunals.

I undertook, last July, to modify the policy in relation to appeals by police officers to me against a finding of guilt or a punishment awarded as a result of a disciplinary charge. In particular, I intend—indeed, I have already begun—to exercise more frequently my power to appoint one or more persons to hold an inquiry into such an appeal. Clause 10 is designed to give more flexibility in handling such appeals and also to make such modification as is necessary to the existing procedure to allow for appeals from the new disciplinary tribunals. Clause 10(1) simply legislates for what has come, over the years, to be an accepted practice, namely, that the Home Secretary's power to increase punishment on appeal, though it exists, should not be used. It has not been used for some time.

Finally, Clause 11 provides for transitional arrangements to be made to deal with complaints cases current when the new procedures come into operation, and Clause 12 makes it clear that the Bill extends only to England and Wales. As I have referred to timing, I should perhaps mention that I hope, if the Bill is passed in reasonable time, to see the Board starting work at the beginning of 1977.

Before I conclude, I should like to return to something to which I referred at the beginning of my speech, namely, the great importance which, in my view, we must all attach to the maintenance and strengthening of public confidence in the police. This Bill is intended as a means to that end. It should not be taken as a criticism of the police or of their present handling of the great majority of complaints. I do not see the Bill as providing a remedy for some very widespread evil. It is designed, rather, to remove any possibility of suspicion that such an evil might exist. I am confident that the Police Complaints Board will quickly establish the reputation for impartiality and for careful but speedy consideration of complaints that will enable it to fulfil properly the great responsibility that this Bill will place upon it.

I believe that the Bill provides for a realistic scheme, which will enable us to find a solution to what has been a longstanding argument and will help to increase public confidence in the police, and which should, as a result, help to build up the morale of the police. I commend the Bill to the House.

11.40 a.m.

Mr. Ian Gilmour (Chesham and Amersham)

I do not know whether it is the Home Secretary who decides the legislative priorities of his Department and the Government, or whether it is the Patronage Secretary, or the Leader of the House. However, whoever it is has an odd sense of priorities. Last summer, at what might be called the height of the economic crisis—that may not be strictly true, because under this Government the economic crisis is endemic and permanent—or, at any rate, during one of the peaks of the economic crisis, what was the contribution of the Home Office to solving the crisis? With a great fanfare of trumpets it produced the Hare Coursing Bill. That was a fine way to reassure our foreign competitors! Certainly no one would take money out of the country if it were known that the Government were about to put down hare coursing with a firm hand. In fact, the Government did not even succeed in that.

The Home Secretary and the Government are now behaving in a scarcely less peculiar way. At a time when virtually everyone is gravely worried about the threat of terrorism and deeply concerned about the rising level of crime and violence, quite apart from terrorism, and when the police are overstretched and naturally resentful at the physical assaults that are made upon them—

Sir Bernard Braine (Essex, South-East)

Even on the doorsteps of this House.

Mr. Gilmour

—yes—what have the Government done? They have introduced a Bill, not to strengthen the police or to give them necessary additional powers compatible with a free society, but merely to facilitate complaints against the police. It is quite impossible to imagine a less appropriate time for introducing and proceeding with such a Bill.

I know that there are, arguably, some precedents for the Title of the Bill, but nevertheless the Title is misleading. It provides no clue to what the Bill is about. It should be called the "Complaints against the Police Bill". If that had been its Title its inappropriateness would have been plain to everyone. We must keep this matter in perspective. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) believes that the great concern in this country at present is not about the rising crime figures and the fact that the police are not being adequately supported, he cannot be in very close touch with his constituents. It is not a matter of trivia. It is a considerable objection to the Bill, which is so grotesquely ill-timed.

Mr. Norman Atkinson (Tottenham)

It is, indeed, trivia. If the debate is about restoration of confidence in the police and if the Bill is to give the public confidence in its procedures, the rubbish that the right hon. Gentleman has put forward surely is trivia.

Mr. Gilmour

This debate is not about loss of confidence in the police, because the Home Secretary himself said that there has been no such loss. Only a few Labour Members believe that there has been a loss of confidence in the police, and I hope that they will do nothing to increase that loss. There has been no loss of confidence. The Bill is not designed to restore any loss of confidence in the police, because the police have high credit among the people of this country. The Bill is mistimed.

The Home Secretary gave some figures, but I did not hear him say to which year they apply. According to Her Majesty's Inspector of Constabulary, in 1974 there were about 11,000 complaints against the police, of which 8.4 per cent. were found to be substantiated and only 2 per cent. of those represented dissatisfaction with either an investigation or its outcome. The police received 18,000 letters of appreciation, relating to 27,000 officers in England and Wales, excluding the Metropolitan Police. The hon. Member for Tottenham should remember that the number of letters of praise received by the police was considerably higher than the number of complaints.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

Does the right hon. Gentleman consider that 2 per cent., or one in 50, of complainants who, at the end of the day, believe that their complaints have not been properly investigated, is a satisfactory solution? It may be a minority issue, but it is important if a person feels that he has been unjustly treated. Complaints should be properly investigated, and this is the machinery to do that.

Mr. Gilmour

We can argue about that. We are not against an independent element, as such, but not all that 2 per cent. of dissatisfied complainants were bona fide cases. Many people complain about anything, and will probably still complain even as a result of this procedure.

Even more so than in the past, the police are regarded by the vast majority of the public as the best in the world. It would be unfortunate if we gave any other impression in this House.

Mr. Leslie Spriggs (St. Helens)

I hope the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me for saying this, but he has given the impression that the Bill is not wanted by the police force. I assure him that the police are in favour of an independent investigatory type of machinery. In view of what most hon. Members have learned from the police direct, why does the right hon. Gentleman give the impression that this is counter to what the police want?

Mr. Gilmour

The first proposition of the hon. Gentleman is wrong, but the second one is right. The police favour an independent element, but not this Bill. I can show the hon. Gentleman the letters that I have received on this subject.

When he was in office my right hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton (Mr. Carr) accepted the independent element, and we still support it. We believe—the Home Secretary may hold this view, to some extent—that these proposals are much more cumbersome, bureaucratic and expensive than is necessary. I doubt whether the expense will be only £300,000. I will place a small bet with the Home Secretary that that figure will be exceeded.

There will be an enormous amount of extra paper chasing around the country as a result of the institution of this procedure. I cannot believe that a less bureaucratic procedure is not possible. The Home Secretary made the fair point that there would be doubts about the full independence of police authorities. However, I believe that it would have been preferable to build on police authorities rather than to set up a wholly new independent board. After all, complaints against chief officers will still be heard by police authorities, and it could be thought that the police authorities would be less independent when considering complaints against chief officers than they would be in the case of complaints against those officers who are lower down the scale. Therefore, the Home Secretary has gone unnecessarily far in the direction of bureaucracy. Surely the objective of any independent inquiry into the complaints procedure is that it should dovetail in with the existing proceure. This will not happen under the Bill. The introduction of an independent procedure will be introduced in opposition to the present procedure.

If this bureaucratic body is to justify its existence, it will have to overrule judgments, made in good faith by chief officers, who are in the best position to know. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) pointed out, there is considerable difficulty, which the Home Secretary honestly recognised, because in some cases the chief officer will have to sit as chairman of a tribunal—the existence of which he did not want—try an offence which he believes did not take place, and then punish the policeman for an offence which the police officer did not believe actually happened.

Sir Bernard Braine

And will then have to continue employing that man in his force. What could more undermine morale?

Mr. Gilmour

I agree. It is a distinct excrescence on the procedure.

As the only way in which the chief officer can be sure that he will not be overruled by the proposed new body, there will be a considerable temptation—indeed, a good deal of common sense—if the police officer says to the officer against whom the complaint is made, "It would be much easier and better if you were to plead guilty to this complaint—although I agree that it is trivial nonsense, and probably you did not do it—and then I would say that disciplinary proceedings had taken place and the case was closed". Surely that would happen quite a lot. And that would be the consequence of the new independent body having been brought into the wrong relationship with the existing police procedure.

Therefore, it is not surprising that the Police Federation, the Police Superintendents' Association and the Association of Chief Police Officers think that the Bill is unnecessary. They do not agree with it and do not support They accept, very fairly, in deference to the wishes of the House, that an independent element should be introduced, but that does not mean that they endorse the Governments proposals.

Mr. Hooley

There is a great deal of force in the right hon. Gentleman's argument, but the logic of it is that the investigation and hearing should be independent.

Mr. Gilmour

That can be said only if someone is not deeply concerned with the proper functioning of the police force and its morale. There is nothing worse than disciplinary proceedings being totally divorced from the people running the police. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's suggestion could conceivably be acted on without doing enormous damage to the police force.

Mr. Spriggs

Has the right hon. Gentleman any evidence for saying that senior officers investigating complaints would advise junior police officers to plead guilty?

Mr. Gilmour

Of course I do not have any evidence for it, because the proposed body has not been set up and therefore the situation has not arisen. However, the logic of events strongly suggests that it will happen, and not necessarily infrequently.

The concern of the Opposition—and it is one of the Home Secretary's concerns—is with police morale. There has never been a time when it was more important for the morale of the police to be high. Although the Police Federation and the other police bodies think that the present position is adequate and are against the Government's proposals, great credit is due to them for being prepared to cooperate with the proposals. It shows a self-control and refusal to put their own sectional interests above the common public interest which is extremely rare in this country today, and they deserve every credit for it.

The Home Secretary stressed that there will be no question of double jeopardy, and that is extremely welcome. He echoed the Home Office hand-out on the Bill which pointed out that disciplinary proceedings would not be brought on charges which, in substance, were the same as possible criminal charges on which the Director had decided, on evidential grounds, not to prosecute. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will consider adding a provision to that effect to the Bill. It would do no harm, and might do some good.

I am not clear about the stage at which all the letters and statements of complaint will be given to the officer against whom complaint is made. This is a matter of considerable concern to the Police Federation, and I hope that the Under-Secretary of State, when she concludes the debate, will be able to reassure us and the Federation on this point.

The other matter which has been outstanding for a long time is the strong desire of the Police Federation to be allowed to use its funds to take legal proceedings against people who defame them. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will reassure us on that point, too.

The Bill is susceptible of a great deal of improvement, and I hope that it will be improved. I hope, also, that it will not damage police morale, although I fear that it will. The Bill is yet another example of the Government's total inability to gear their legislative programme to the needs of the country. The Bill is a good deal less damaging than will be most of the other legislation that we shall debate in this Session, but, in view of what we know about some of that legislation, that is very faint praise indeed. The Bill is unsatisfactory in many respects and it is grotesquely ill-timed.

11.57 a.m.

Mr. Ian Mikardo (Bethnal Green and Bow)

Apart from the complaints and criticisms of the Bill which the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mr. Gilmour) expressed—that was fair enough; I shall have some to make myself—he began and ended his speech by complaining that a measure on this subject had been introduced. I do not know what the Opposition want out of the Labour Government. If the Government do not carry out their undertakings, the Opposition rightly complain; but they also complain when the Government do carry out their undertakings.

Contrary to the views of the right hon. Gentleman, I wish to express my gratitude to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for honouring an undertaking which he gave a long time ago and in respect of which he has had to work hard in order to achieve an understanding. We now know what to expect from the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham if ever a Conservative Prime Minister is so hard up as to appoint him a Minister—and he would have to be very hard up to do it. We know that when he gives the House an undertaking he will not carry it out because he thinks that there is something improper about a Minister who has carried out an undertaking.

The right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary rightly said that the Bill is concerned with maintaining public confidence in the police. It we had a proper, credible, understood and widely accepted independent system for dealing with complaints by the public against the police, it would make a great contribution to maintaining and, indeed, enhancing public confidence in the police. As the Bill is of advantage to the general public and to the police for the reasons I have given, those chief constables who resisted the introduction of such a Bill, and the right hon. Gentleman with his niggles against it, are doing a disservice to the public and to the police.

I share my right hon. Friend's view that the general rule throughout the land is that people have confidence in the police, but there are exceptions to that rule of which we must take note. The degree of confidence of the public in the police varies from one area to another and from one time to another even in a given area. For example, in the East End of London the ordinary citizen and the policeman are thrown much more closely together and live more cheek by jowl together than they do in the salubrious, respectable area of, for example, Chesham and Amersham. The level of confidence in some areas is not as high and not as permanent as it is in others.

Whenever there has been a manifest carve-up by the police and a manifest carve-up in the handling of a complaint against the police, public confidence in the police in that area unhappily but understandably plummets. That is why we should make sure that justice is not only done but is seen to be done. We must create an atmosphere in which it cannot be said, as it is often said now, that mere is one law for the policeman and another law for other people, or, to put it in another way, that the police succeed from time to time in putting themselves above the law. We must get rid of the possibility of that being so or appearing to be so. Although I shall support the motion for the Second Reading of the Bill, in the hope that it will be improved in Committee, I do not think that the Bill will achieve that objective and contribute to a higher degree of public confidence.

It is the initial investigation which will colour and influence and in general decide the rest of the procedure. The Bill provides not an independent investigation into complaints against the police but an independent investigation into the validity of a non-independent investigation. The tribunal passes judgment on the initial investigation which is not independent. The element of independence is, therefore, not as great as it should be.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

I understand the hon. Gentleman to suggest that there should be an independent force which would do its task outside the police service. Will he tell the House who would run that force, how large it would be and what would be its relationship with the chief officers of police who are required by law to maintain the Queen's peace in their areas?

Mr. Mikardo

It is not for me to work out such an apparatus. I see no difficulty about it. We have managed to provide independent courts and we have many types of independent tribunal. There are independent tribunals to which a person may appeal against the refusal of an insurance officer to grant him a pension. We have found no difficulty in setting up that apparatus, and I see no difficulty here.

The first weakness of the scheme is that all the tribunal will be looking at will be the initial investigation, which was not independent. The second weakness is that that is done under a chief officer who does not want the matter to go to the tribunal. He is overridden, the case goes to the tribunal, and that chief officer is made chairman of the tribunal. He is put in charge of an operation which he does not want to succeed. That is a great way to get a job well done! It is like appointing a confirmed dipsomaniac as recruiting officer for a total abstinence society, or an arsonist as chief officer of a fire brigade. What sort of nonsense is it to set out to do a job and put in charge someone who does not want it to happen?

Furthermore, if he does not want it to happen he can say to the officer concerned "You plead guilty, and I will let you off lightly. That is better than going to the rotten old tribunal, which might ask you and me awkward questions." Is not that what is most likely to happen if the chief officer does not want the case to go to the tribunal?

The two members of the Police Complaints Board nominated to serve on the tribunal must be chosen from those who have no previous connection with the case. Why do that when the chairman has had a previous connection with the case? Is not that one law for the police and another law for someone else? If the chief officer—chairman is overridden—he can be overriden only if the two other members take the same view—it is for him alone to decide the punishment. There is not much independence about that.

Just look at the procedure. The chairman does not want the case to go to the tribunal; there is a formula through which he can readily prevent its going to the tribunal. When it goes to the tribunal, he is in charge. If he is overridden two to one, he decides what the punishment shall be. He has to consult the other two but he need not take much notice of them if he does not want to. Is that an independent judgment, or is it a judgment by a policeman of a policeman?

The record of punishments which have been inflicted by chief officers is a very bizarre and strange one indeed. Quite a long time ago I raised in an Adjournment debate the case of a then constituent who had been picked up by the police one night and taken to a police station where he was savagely beaten up by six police officers. He made a complaint and it was investigated by the police. The investigating officer preferred the word of the policemen to the word of the civilian. That happens very often, even in cases where the civilian gives evidence on oath and the policeman merely sends in a written report. In this case the investigating officer took the word of the policemen against that of the civilian and said that there was no substance for the complaint.

My constituent found a way of getting an independent investigation into the case. He sued the six policemen for damages and the case went to court. On the basis of the same evidence that was available to the investigating police officer, the court found for my constituent and awarded him damages against all the six officers because he had established on evidence that he had been beaten up by them. So those six officers lied, did they not, to the investigating officer? They were guilty of two crimes—beating up a civilian and lying to the investigating officer.

But what punishment did they suffer? I checked up a few months later. One policeman had left the force while the other five had exactly the same position, were doing exactly the same work and had suffered no punishment whatsoever. When that gets around a locality, as it does like wildfire, it is not calculated to prevent people from believing that there is one law for the police and one law for everyone else.

What about the report of the investigating officer, confirmed by the Undersecretary of State in a speech to the House, which found that the police officers in charge of the inquiry into the Barn murder grossly violated police rules about identification parades in order to secure identification of a chap who turned out not to have been within miles of the place at the time? They took photographs of him without his knowledge, which is a violation not only of any decent concept of civil liberties but of police regulations. They showed photographs of him to people who were going to do the identifying, which is obviously seeking identification by improper means and also is a violation of police rules. Senior officers were involved in the conduct of the identification parades. On the report of the investigating officer, subsequently admitted by the chief officer of the force concerned, those officers grossly violated the police procedures laid down by the police themselves. What happened to them? Nothing. Is that the same law for the police as for everyone else?

What about the fact that some police officers in the bullion case manifestly took a bribe—they were in the same force, the Essex and Southend Constabulary—to pass over to the defendants some of the police evidence against them? That is not very good police work, is it? And what has happened? Nothing. It is public knowledge that this evidence was sold to the defendants and public knowledge how much was involved—£6,000. What has happened? Nothing.

In these circumstances, how are we to get enhancement of public confidence in the police on the basis of an arrangement under which the chief officer of a policeman against whom a complaint has been made can resist its going to the tribunal, can find a formula to prevent it from going, and in the last resort can become chairman of the tribunal and decide on the penalty if the complaint is found to be valid? This is not the way to seek the objective which we all desire, that of greater public trust in the police.

Under Clause 5 of the Bill the Secretary of State will be empowered to make regulations, some of which would have the effect of making unnecessary the procedure laid down in the Bill. That is all right. I can understand circumstances in which it might be desirable. But I think it is wrong that these regulations should be made under the negative rather than the positive procedure—that is to say, it is proposed by my right hon. Friend that they shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House instead of being put into effect by a resolution of the House. In the whole of this business we are sailing into uncharted waters. No hon. Member can forecast with any degree of certainty how well this procedure will work. Much as I respect the great deal of thought and discussion that my right hon. Friend has put into the preparation of the Bill, it would still be a miracle if it worked out perfectly and if we did not find that in a couple of years' time it was in need of some amendment.

We ought to be in a position subsequently to discuss any major action which is taken under the Bill precisely because we are moving into uncharted waters. If we have positive Orders instead of negative Orders, there is a much better chance—I put it no higher than that—of having an opportunity to discuss them.

I cannot for the life of me understand why the Secretary of State is removing by Clause 10 his power to increase a punishment on appeal. That power exists in any appellate body, and for a good reason, because if it is not there one encourages frivolous appeals. Of course a man will appeal when he knows that the only possible outcome is that either his punishment will remain as it is or it will be reduced. He has nothing to lose. As the bookmaking fraternity would say, he is on a bet to nothing.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not allow himself to make a statement which is inaccurate in an important matter. The Court of Appeal has no power to increase a sentence.

Mr. Mikardo

I am sorry. I did not realise that that was so, and I apologise. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his correction. He is a lawyer and I am not.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

Accepting the information that the hon. Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) has just provided to the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Mikardo) should also be aware that it is open to the Court of Appeal to direct that time spent waiting for the hearing of an appeal shall not count towards sentence, so that there is available to the Court of Appeal a sanction of increasing the penalty.

Mr. Mikardo

I know what you would do, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if you were in my position at the moment, and I propose to do it. I shall leave the lawyers to argue it out amongst themselves and stick simply to the point here. With this new provision, everybody will want to appeal. Why not? What has a chap to lose by appealing? The worst that can happen to him is that he will be no worse off than he is now. The best that can happen to him is that his punishment will be reduced. He knows that it cannot be increased.

In case I was wrong about the law—and it seems to be doubtful—may I suggest that surely one of the reasons why the Secretary of State has had these powers up to now is to discourage frivolous appeals, and, of course, it is important so to do. I cannot see why this proposal has been made.

I give a highly modified welcome to the Bill. I hope that hon. Members who look at it in detail in Committee will do something to bring it to the point at which it will achieve the objectives which my right hon. Friend seeks. I hope also that we shall do what I suggested in passing a few moments ago. When it has been going for a couple of years or so, I hope that we shall have a really good look at how it is operated and not be afraid, if we find it necessary, to make some changes.

12.22 p.m.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

I am sure that the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Mikado) will forgive me if I do not follow his speech in any detail, save only to say that it is always easy to select one or two incidents, as he did, and fail to recognise that for every case where the police may be found to have behaved badly there are 100 cases where the police are maliciously and unjustly accused—not least in this House—and have no means of defending themselves.

In view of the seriousness of the two or three cases that the hon. Member mentioned, I hope he will give names and dates and evidence of the officers concerned and that he will repeat this outside the House. As and when the funds of the Federation are available to the police to take action, I hope he will accept the due risk of what he has said.

Mr. Mikardo

The hon. Member does not have to make that rather dramatic schoolboyish challenge. I have put it all on the record outside the House long before now.

Mr. Griffiths

I hope that the hon. Member will do so again and that the Under-Secretary will reply to the very serious charges that he has made.

As the House knows, I have a connection with the Police Federation. I state it very plainly. But I am in no sense its mouthpiece in this House. I listen to what the Federation has to say and I then make up my own mind, just as the present Foreign Secretary and, indeed, the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security have done when they occupied the position I now hold. Nevertheless, my remarks today have the full support of the Joint Central Committee of the Police Federation and of the 100,000 police officers whom it represents. I am sure the House will agree that, in a matter of the kind we are debating today, the views of the police service deserve our most serious and earnest consideration.

I accept the principle that there needs to be an independent element in the judgment of complaints against the police, and I honour the Home Secretary for having fulfilled his commitment to introduce such an independent element. Having said that, however, I do not like the Bill. I do not like its contents, I do not like its timing, and I believe that it is out of touch with opinion in the country. It will add materially to the paperwork and the bureaucracy that already make far too heavy demands on operational police manpower, and I am sure that it will add very much more substantially to public expenditure than the figures given.

I believe, too, that in present circumstances the Bill will, from the chief officer right down to the men on the beat, do nothing to help and something to hinder the maintenance of police morale.

That said, I make it clear that if the Government are determined to have this Bill—and if the House is pleased to agree—the police will, as they always have done, co-operate in making it work. Unlike other organisations of workers in this country who have refused to accept the will of a lawfully elected Government, who have refused to accept the declared will of Parliament and who have been encouraged by Members of this House to break the law of Parliament, the Police Federation, though it dislikes the Bill, will uphold the law, however much its members and its leaders may think that this particular part of the law is an ass.

Mr. Atkinson

The House is entitled to know the hon. Member's view on two counts. One is whether he thinks that there should be some appeals procedure in existence. At the moment, he has condemned what is there and what is proposed. Does he honestly believe that an appeals procedure should be available? Secondly, I take it that he will advise his colleagues on his side of the House to vote against the Bill. Is that the case?

Mr. Griffiths

The hon. Gentleman cannot have been listening. I made it very plain that I accept in principle the need for an independent element to be established. He must have failed to hear what I said on that point. But I do not like the Bill and I do not like its timing.

The approach of the Police Federation is contained in a letter—my right hon. Friend, I believe, has a copy, and, I think, the Home Secretary as well—written to me today by the Chairman of the Police Federation, Mr. Male, in which he says: At no time has the Police Federation indicated that the procedure laid down under Section 49 of the Police Act 1964"— that is the present complaints procedure— needs to be altered in any way. We believe that the public are satisfied with the present procedures and retain absolute confidence in the operational efficiency of the police service. However, we have taken note of the various debates that have taken place in the House of Commons, and of the statements made by several prominent people, that in order that justice 'should be seen to be done' it is necessary to introduce an independent element into the complaints procedure. That is the view of the Police Federation and I believe, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mr. Gilmour) said, that it is a statesmanlike view to which the House should pay tribute.

The Federation Chairman goes on to say: After very careful consideration we have decided that the Federation…would cooperate in a new system providing certain provisos are introduced at the same time, the provisos being, that there would be no 'double jeopardy'"— the Home Secretary has dealt with that— that all letters and statements of complaint should be provided to the officer who is the subject of the complaint"— I hope that the Under-Secretary will say at what point in the procedure this will be done.

The letter continues: that the Police Federation funds can be used to prosecute, through the courts, cases of defamation; and that improvements are introduced into the discipline appeals regulations. That is the letter of the Police Federation, and I personally endorse it wholeheartedly.

I should like now to try to place the Bill in the wider perspectives that concern the men and women who serve in the police service. I believe that we should ask ourselves whether it is appropriate, whether it is timely and whether it is expedient to be concentrating today on complaints against the police. In my view, we should be more concerned about complaints by the police about the lack of support that they are getting from this House and from the country.

It is often said that Parliament is out of touch. I do not share that view. However, in the past 48 hours we have not given a shining example of the relevance of our debates to the task in which the police service is now engaged.

The public are desperately concerned about the threat to public order, about the rising tide of terror and of violence, about the threat to civil peace, about the risk to the citizen's ability to go about his lawful business in peace. Yet what has this House been doing? To the considerable credit of the Home Secretary, he brought in the new anti-terrorism Bill, and it could be said that today's Bill is in a sense the other side of that coin. In the course of the debates on that counter-terrorism Bill the other night, however, it was appalling to hear so many Government supporters attacking the police at a time when they are in the front line of the battle.

It would be wrong of me to go into detail, because we are discussing today's Bill and not the other one. But when Government supporters attack the police service, as they did the other night, why do they not use the established complaints procedure which is available to them instead of coming to this House and exercising privilege against the police without having the courage to state those facts outside?

Mr. Hooley

The answer is quite simple. If we made a complaint, there would be no independent investigation of it. That is the basis of the Bill.

Mr. Griffiths

If the hon. Gentleman had ever made complaints against the police service—

Mr. Hooley

I have.

Mr. Griffiths —he would have found that the present procedure works well and carries more public confidence than he does.

With the exception of the counter-terrorism legislation, over the past 48 hours, when our people are deeply concerned about public order, this House has been dealing with the Queen's privy purse, with ancient monuments and with Cyprus sherry. Now we are devoting a day, which could be better devoted to more important matters, to increasing the ability of malicious defamers of the police service to complain against the police. It is necessary that I should say that.

The background to the Bill is not a tide of rising concern for police misbehaviour. There are black sheep in the service. There are many incidents of which the police service can be ashamed. But I defy any hon. Member to say that he detects in the country today a massive up-welling of demand for action in order to strengthen inquiries against the police.

On the contrary the real background to our debate, outside this Chamber if not within it, is a rising public concern about the overstrain and the undermanning of the police service. There is alarm about the sheer volume of crime with which the police are trying desperately to cope—some 2 million crimes a year involving, at the latest count, more than £100 million worth of property lost in the past 12 months alone. There is even greater anxiety among our constituents about the violence which causes no fewer than 10 policemen every day to be assaulted so severely as to receive compensation from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board. That is what is happening in the police service at the moment.

There is also concern, which I hope the House will accept, among the wives of police officers. The other day, eight police officers defending this House and its freedoms were assaulted by people who came here on a demonstration. Eight police officers defending this House were carried away by ambulance. What do I say to the wives of those officers? Do I tell them that the House of Commons, on the following Friday, devoted itself to making it easier for people to complain against the police?

The police have a right to complain just as much as the public have a right to complain. The complaint of the police is that they are not obtaining from the House and from the present Government the support to which they are entitled and which the British people vigorously demand. I believe that the public take the same view of this Bill as the Police Federation does. They feel that the police themselves are more sinned against than sinning and that it is time for this House to back the police and not continually to denigrate them.

Above all, there is in the country today a rising concern about a new phenomenon. It is the phenomenon of organised terror and of political murder. The atrocities in Ulster, the bombings in Birmingham and London and the assassination of Mr. McWhirter have aroused among our people a deep and burning anger and, in my judgment, a determination that the forces of law and order—which means particularly the police—shall not be condemned but shall be supported. I shall judge this Bill on the basis of whether it achieves that.

The Bill should therefore be amended to include complaints by the police as well as complaints against the police—the complaints of the police against, for example, magistrates who, after a policeman has risked his life to catch a dangerous criminal, impose a fine, allow it to be paid at the rate of £1 a week and then inquire, as I know from one example, whether it is convenient for the convicted man to pay it at that rate.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I share the hon. Gentleman's concern and that of the police about many of these instances where magistrates do not seem to be supporting the police. Does the hon. Gentleman suppose that in this Bill we could give to some other body power over members of the judiciary to vary the sentences which they impose?

Mr. Griffiths

I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman will hear more of this if he serves on the Standing Committee.

There are also the complaints of the police against those in authority, including some Members of this House, who have connived at the breaking of the law, which is what above all the policeman depends upon. There are complaints—

Mr. Atkinson

Let us have some names.

Mr. Griffiths

I shall name the hon. Member who represents Clay Cross as an example. Above all, there are complaints by the police against those in this House who expect them to risk their lives, as they do weekly, and even daily, while taking away from the police what they have always regarded as their one sure protection against the armed criminal gunman. I refer to the capital sentence.

These are some of the legitimate complaints by the police which this House should consider along with complaints against the police.

Mr. Atkinson

It is just not good enough for the hon. Gentleman to make accusations against Government supporters in this flippant and curious way. He has alread named one hon. Member. However, the events at Clay Cross had nothing at all to do with the police. There was no breaking of the criminal law in that case. It was a matter of political discussion. If the hon. Gentleman intends to continue along that road, may I remind him that there are some who are very close to himself who have come very near to breaking the law on many occasions—indeed some have themselves broken the law—and who continue to sit on the Opposition Benches? I advise the hon. Gentleman not to go along in that direction.

Mr. Griffiths

For the policeman on the beat, the policeman in the office or the chief officer, the law is a seamless garment which he lives with and respects. When Labour Members, or anyone else in this country, play ducks and drakes with the law, the esteem which the policeman holds for the law is seriously impaired.

The Bill should cover one other point and that is the waste of time that is imposed upon the police by the actions of Parliament. I shall give just one example from the legislation sub-committee of the Police Federation joint central committee which sat last week. As a result of requests from the Home Office, the legislation sub-committee of the joint central committee was asked to consider recommendations for reducing the age of consent to 14 for both boys and girls for both heterosexual and homosexual behaviour; for the abolition of the offence of rape; for incest no longer to be a specifically defined criminal defence; and for those sections of the 1956 and 1967 Acts relating to buggery to be repealed.

I refer to those matters simply to point out that they are the items which waste the time of the police service, at a time when the police are required and expected by the public to provide the defence of the rule of law and of the citizen's right to walk about his country in peace. The House is showing today an extraordinary lack of recognition of the reality of police operations in this country.

I turn to three or four specific points within the Bill. The first is the danger of delay. It is already a fact that the existing complaints procedure may lead a police officer to wait for at long as 18 months to discover whether or not he is to be dismissed from the service or disciplined. That shadow lies across the man, his family and indeed his colleagues.

Mr. Mikardo

Whose fault is that?

Mr. Griffiths

The present procedure is cumbersome and slow. I ask the Under-Secretary of State, when she winds up the debate, to give an assurance that the new procedure will not introduce further delays and a longer shadow across the life of the man accused.

My second point of detail concerns suspension from duty. At present it is nearly always the case that when a complaint is received an officer may be suspended from duty. There is, in the view of the Federation, no reason why such officers should not be reinstated to duty if the Director of Public Prosecutions decides not to bring a criminal charge. This, of course, is allowed for under Section 17 of the present Police Discipline Regulations. However, I believe that it could and should be included in the Bill.

My third point concerns the view of the Federation, which I share, that no disciplinary proceedings should be instituted in those cases where the Director of Public Prosecutions has decided on evidential grounds not to prosecute. That point was made very lucidly by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham.

My fourth point concerns the invidious position of the chief officer who, in the first instance, has judged it wrong to bring charges against an officer and who is then overruled by the complaints board; he is then required to sit as chairman of a tribunal of three which, voting by majority, can overrule him two to one; and he may then be required to apply to the accused police officer a punishment which he believes not to be just or necessary. That point was also clearly made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham.

The Bill is muddled on this point. I hope that either the Under-Secretary when she replies to the debate today, or the Home Secretary in Committee, will find ways of putting this right. To do justice to the Home Secretary, he fairly recognised the difficulties of the problem.

Mr. Mikardo

I should like to correct a factual inaccuracy. It is certainly not true that the chief officer will be compelled to apply a punishment he does not agree with, because it is he and he alone who decides on the punishment. If it is the fact, as the hon. Gentleman says, that the whole public have a warm regard for the police, why is the police force so far short of its establishment at a time when there are 1¼ million unemployed? Why is there no rush to join the police force?

Mr. Griffiths

I shall deal with the hon. Gentleman's second point first. The reason why the police numbers are too low is that the Government and police authorities do not have the money to bring the force up to establishment.

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, the chief officer may well wish to impose no punishment at all, but it is inconceivable, where the complaints board and the tribunal have overruled him, that he could impose no punishment at all. That must be plain.

The Police Federation representing 100,000 police officers, regards as the minimum quid pro quo for its support of the passage of the Bill that, first, the officer complained against must be provided with a copy of the letter and complaint against him. That is elementary justice though I know, as the hon. Lady knows, that there have to be some exceptions. Nevertheless, it must be brought into the text of the Bill that the right of the accused to see the accusation against him is the will of Parliament.

The second indispensable point is that the funds of the Federation must be permitted to be used to take action for defamation, slander or libel in the case of frivolous or malicious complaints which are found to be untrue. I hope that the hon. Lady will not beat about the bush on this point. It requires a change in the police regulations. I hope that the hon. Lady will say that the change will be made pari passu with the consideration of the Bill in Committee so that at the end of the day the Federation will have no doubt that its funds can be used and that accused police officers shall see the complaints against them.

Even with those provisos I am bound to say, as I said at the beginning, that the Federation does not want this Bill. It does not like this Bill. It will co-operate if that is the wish of the House, but it will expect these provisos to be met.

12.48 p.m.

Mr. Bruce Douglas-Mann (Mitcham and Morden)

I wish that the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) had confined his speech to the last five minutes, because that part contained a certain amount of sense. The earlier part, and, indeed, the speech of the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mr. Gilmour), contained a great deal of emotive rubbish and arguments that I was disappointed to hear from Conservative Members of their stature. In effect, they were both saying that because there is no public hysteria demanding legislation of this kind we should not introduce it. They are in effect saying that it is not the function of the House to lead public opinion, and that it is not the concern of the House to ensure that justice is not only done but seen to be done. I find it difficult to understand how a Member with the experience of the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds can say that there is such complete public confidence in the police, in all areas, that there is no need for independent investigations.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

I did not say that.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

I do not recall the hon. Gentleman's exact words; I merely have the note which I wrote down at the time. I understood the hon. Gentleman to say that there was such public confidence in the police that the Bill was quite unnecessary. If the hon. Gentleman and the police believe that, they are seriously out of touch. My experience stems mainly from North Kensington, the area in which I have lived, and which I formerly represented, for many years.

There is a substantial social problem in the relationships between the police and, particularly, the black community in North Kensington. In the absence of an independent investigatory ingredient in the complaints procedure there can be no public confidence in the police. It may be, as the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds asserts, that for every complaint against the police that is justified there are 100 which are not. I think, however, that the proportion of justifiable complaints is probably much higher.

I have experience of a number of complaints against the police being made on behalf of clients or constituents or, in one case, by myself. I am a practising solicitor and there have been occasions on which clients whom I have known for many years have made complaints against the police. I have never known a case in which, at the conclusion of the complaints procedure, the complainant felt that the matter had been satisfactorily investigated. The complaint that I made concerned someone who was manhandled. Nothing resulted from it because, ultimately, the person concerned did not want to lay charges and the investigating officer concluded that no action was needed. With that exception, I cannot say that any of the complaints of which I have had knowledge were justified, but I felt that at the end of the day my clients or constituents were dissatisfied because there had been no independent element in the investigation.

I do not always agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Mikardo). On occasions I strongly disagree with him. I know none of the details of the incident to which he referred, but, almost without exception, I would associate myself with the criticisms that he made of the Police Act procedure and the defects in this Bill. I am not completely certain about the power to increase the penalty. I should like further consideration of that in Committee. In spite of the serious defects in the Bill, however, I greatly welcome it, because it is long overdue. The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds referred to one of the major deficiencies, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow, which concerns the rôle of the chief officer under Clause 4. I completely associate myself with that criticism.

Another unsatisfactory aspect, apart from the fact that there is no independent element at the initiation of the complaint and in the initial investigation, is that at the stage when the complaint finally reaches the Complaints Board there will be no provision for the complainant to make representations. The investigating officer's report will go to the Board, with the chief officer's decision on it. However, there is no machinery for the complainant to say that he had not been satisfactorily interviewed, or that two or three of the people he had referred to the investigating officer had not been interviewed or to point out deficiencies in the investigation, on the grounds for his belief that the wrong conclusion had been reached. There is no procedure to make points to the Complaints Board, and that should be put right in Committee.

Another factor with which I am dissatisfied is that there is no time limit on the investigation of the complaint. I have known of complaints which seemed to drag on quite unnecessarily, until the achievement of justice became impossible. The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds referred to proceedings taking 18 months. That is unsatisfactory. It it is undesirable to have an independent element in the investigation from the beginning—I am far from convinced about that—there should be a point at which that independent element is introduced. Perhaps it could be introduced in cases when, within so many months of the complaint having been lodged, no action had been taken or no report received. The Complaints Board procedure could then automatically be involved. If that is not done the complaint may drag on for an unnecessarily long time, and there would be no procedure by which the complainant could ensure that his complaint was attended to within a reasonable period.

I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds on behalf of the Police Federation, concerning those provisions it would like inserted as a condition of its acceptance of the Bill. I accept the point about double jeopardy. I am very much concerned about the situation in a case for a constituent, a police officer who had been charged before a jury and acquitted, and now faces disciplinary proceedings for the very same offence. That is a totally unsatisfactory situation, which should be resolved.

I accept that it is reasonable for a police officer to be given the details of the complaints made against him, except where it is undesirable because of the need for the investigation of an allegation of a serious criminal offence. Other than in that case the officer should be informed at the start of what is alleged against him. Most certainly he should be enabled to pursue the remedies in law which are provided in a case of malicious and unfounded complaint. Nevertheless, I also wish to be certain that there is an adequate means of ensuring that complaints are properly investigated in the first place. I cannot see why, if there is an independent procedure under the race relations and sex discrimination legislation, the same independent ingredient cannot be incorporated at the initiation of complaints against the police. I can see nothing wrong with a scheme that provides a wholly independent force to investigate such complaints.

Conservative Members may say that such measures are not necessary at a time when we should be concerned with the arguments about hanging terrorists; that this is not the time to worry about ensuring that justice is done to those who have been maltreated by the police. I hope that hon. Members will agree that there are cases of maltreatment by the police, cases of corruption, and cases where the police either do what they should not or do not do what they should. I hope that they will accept, too, that these cases must be investigated.

We have passed prevention of terrorism measures which give additional power to the police to keep a person in custody for seven days without having to take him before a magistrate. This Bill is the other side of that coin. Where police powers are being increased in response to an emergency situation, I believe that there should be a greater capacity to investigate those occasions when the police have not used those powers properly. This Bill does not take adequate powers to do that. We need an independent element of investigation from the start. Even if we cannot get that—and I hope that we shall try for it in Committee—there are other factors in the Bill to which I have referred which must be improved. I have particularly in mind the time factor, the greater involvement of the complainant and the reduction of the role of the chief officer, to which reference has been made.

I welcome the Bill, although I feel that it has inadequacies, which we shall be able to correct.

1.0 p.m.

Sir Bernard Braine (Essex, South-East)

It is my duty to declare an interest in that for the past 10 years I have been parliamentary adviser to the Police Superintendents' Association of England and Wales. Let me say at the outset that, like all other hon. Members who have so far spoken, I am uneasy about the Bill—not about its central purpose, which is to provide an independent element in the investigation of complaints against the police, but about the way in which that purpose is to be achieved

I recognise the need to ensure public confidence in any complaints procedure. That is absolutely fundamental. I can see the force of the argument that in any investigation the police should not appear to be both judge and jury in their own case. That is essential. In saying that I am reflecting the views of all senior police officers, and I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) has made it plain that it is the view of the police service as a whole.

Equally, however, we should be on guard against taking any steps which undermine police morale, especially at a time of mounting lawlessness. I shall say no more about that because every hon. Member understands the problem that not merely the police service but the community as a whole faces in that context.

The Bill has had a chequered history. The Home Secretary's original outline scheme for handling complaints against the police was strongly criticised by the Association of County Councils and the Association of Municipal Corporations—representing as they do all the police authorities in England and Wales—as being complex, impracticable and unnecessarily costly. An alternative scheme, designed to avoid setting up excessively centralised and cumbersome machinery, was rejected by the Home Secretary. The Bill before us today is a compromise, an attempt to take into account some but not all of those objections.

It is certainly the view of the association I represent, and I understand that it is also the view of the local authority associations, that the scheme which the Bill provides is too centralised and cumbersome and pays far too little regard to the interests of the police authorities and the morale of the police. Already it is clear from what has been said that the Bill will need a great deal of amendment if it is to work satisfactory and if it is to be acceptable to the public and the police.

There is one obvious flaw which strikes me immediately. The Bill envisages the establishment of a Police Complaints Board at an estimated cost of £300,000. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mr. Gilmour) offered to place a bet that it would cost infinitely more than that. A little simple arithmetitc will show that it is bound to cost vastly more than that. The Home Secretary told us that complaints were running at the rate of 17,500 a year. Assuming that the nine members of the Board work 200 days in each year, they will have to deal with a case load of about nine-and-a-half cases per working day—on the assumption that such cases will be dealt with without any reference back. In short, too little thought has been given by those who have prepared the Bill to the likely burden and cost. On that score alone we shall scrutinise the Bill in the greatest detail in Committee.

As I understand it, almost all complaints will have to go to the Board, which will have to decide whether it should overrule the chief constable in the action to be taken. There is some confusion about this. This is what Clause 2(1) provides. If we read the Press handout sent out when the Bill was published, we see that it says expressly that the deputy chief constable will send those cases which are not to be the subject of disciplinary proceedings. This suggests in effect, the retention of some autonomous powers by the chief constable. That is what all the elements in the working group on this matter understood would be the case. This obviously needs clarification.

If all cases are to be referred to the Board, this will add enormously to the burden of an already overburdened police force at a time when the need is for every available police officer to be concentrated in the front line, fighting against serious crime.

One of my colleagues who cannot be here today sent me a letter from one of his constituents in which the following passage occurs, dealing with the situation in one part of his constituency: The following incidents have recently occurred in the relatively peaceful area of Wimbledon and its surrounds. A boy had his jaw broken at school. Another boy on the way home from school was severely kicked about the head by youths wearing steel tipped boots. A man who had taken his wife, a nurse, to hospital for the start of night duty, on leaving the hospital was severely attacked by a gang of youths for no reason whatsoever. An old age pensioner was savagely attacked by a gang of youths because he spoke to a boy who was striking a shop window with a brick. The police were reported to have said that it was virtually impossible to catch the culprits because there were so many on the estate indulging in that sort of behaviour. This is the pattern in many of our urban areas. It requires intensive policing. We all know not only that this sort of thing is going on but that it is increasing. Surely it is foolish for this House to be concerned about setting up elaborate procedures for investigating complaints and increasing paper work at a time when the police force is faced with that sort of situation.

In any event, the proposed system is likely in some cases to undermine the authority of the chief constable. I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Mikardo) had to say. I fully understand the general burden of his remarks. We cannot ignore the validity of some of the things he said about the situation in certain areas in the metropolis. However, he and any other hon. Member who makes the same suggestion are totally wrong to imagine that chief officers and superintendents are not concerned with maintaining the highest levels of morale and discipline in their forces. I know of no evidence to the contrary. I have plenty of evidence to support the view that they would not in any circumstances condone misconduct by members of the force.

Yet the Bill provides that the chief constable will be in a minority of one at hearings before the tribunal. This means that he may find himself having to award punishment to a police officer in circumstances when he might not consider that the man was guilty of the offence with which he was charged, and, what is more, he may well have to retain that officer in his force. I cannot think of any other circumstances more likely to lead to a loss of control by a chief constable over his force. These arrangements might be less objectionable if the Board included a representative of the police authorities. After all, the police authorities are representative of the community since they are composed, at least in part, of democratically-elected members. Yet there is no provision in the Bill for such persons to be appointed. Thus the suggested composition of the Board, or the method of selecting its members, is unacceptable.

There is no provision in the Bill for the police authorities even to be consulted about appointments to the Board or about appointments of support staff. That is an important omission, because hitherto the principle of decentralisation of the police has been safeguarded by Parliament.

Moreover, Section 50 of the Police Act 1964 places a duty on police authorities to keep themselves informed of the manner in which complaints are dealt with by chief constables. That in itself is a check on chief constables, a check on the way in which the existing complaints procedure has been carried out. It is right and it is democratic, yet there is no sign in the Bill of how that duty is to be discharged. On the contrary, Clause 1(4) provides that: the Board shall act in accordance with any general directions given by the Secretary of State. We shall need to pursue this further in Committee.

The work of investigating complaints is carried out by police superintendents, the senior field officers of the service. The Police Superintendents' Association takes the view that if Parliament considers that new machinery is necessary it will go along with it loyally, but as the police superintendents will have to carry out the extra work that the new system will require, and be responsible at the same time for maintaining the morale of their hard-pressed forces, the Association would like me to make a number of points.

Mr. R. A. McCrindle (Brentwood and Ongar)

Before my hon. Friend starts to deploy what I am sure will be extremely interesting points, may I ask whether in his long experience there has been for such a protracted period no Minister from the Department principally concerned with the Bill sitting on the Government Front Bench? Does he accept that, while the presence of a Whip is no doubt desirable, it is a great pity that there is no representative of the Home Office present to hear what he is about to say?

Sir B. Braine

I am of charitable disposition. There may be an explanation, although for the moment it escapes me. I hope that the Government Front Bench will soon be adorned by a representative of the Home Office, because the whole debate on a Bill with such far-reaching consequences and of such significance should be heard by a Minister. I trust therefore, that somebody will make himself responsible for conveying what we say to responsible Ministers.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

What my hon. Friend is now saying reflects the views of the police superintendents. I am sure that he will not fail to inform their Association that no Home Office Minister found the time or had the courtesy to listen to what he had to say for that important section of the police service.

Sir B. Braine

I hesitated to make the observation myself, but my hon. Friends have done so. Perhaps it is my duty in the circumstances to ask you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to adjourn the sitting until a Home Office Minister finds it possible to be here.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. George Thomas)

I hope that I shall not be asked to suspend the sitting, although—and I do not want to enter into the argument—it is customary for Ministers to be present. No doubt a message will be sent to the Ministers concerned. However, it is not my business.

Mr. Alison

This is clearly a matter of great importance. It appears that the Whip may have to leave the Chamber to secure the attendance of a Minister. Therefore, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would you authorise a short adjournment on a motion to adjourn to make it possible for Ministers to reappear and take charge of the Bill?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am already under pressure as a number of hon. Members wish to speak. Some of them are not here now, presumably because they are having their lunch. I should much prefer us to continue the debate, and I could not accept a motion to adjourn at this stage.

Mr. Atkinson

There is a serious situation in the Home Office, which is extremely overloaded with work. I received a letter yesterday from the Minister of State asking me not to telephone, because there was no time to deal with telephone calls from Members of Parliament. I have written to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister saying that the Department needs additional staff because of the tremendous burden it is trying to carry. Presumably the missing Ministers are struggling to deal with some of the telephone calls.

Mr. Edward Gardner (South Fylde)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it not the first duty of a Minister to appear before the House on a Bill with the consequences and importance of this Bill? Is it right that the House should have to tolerate the continued absence of a Minister, who will presumably have to rely on the report in Hansard, when he or she should be here to listen to the debate?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The answer is that it is a normal courtesy for a Minister to be present.

Mr. David Stoddart (Swindon)

Further to the point of order. My hon. Friend the Minister has had to leave the House briefly. I am glad to see that she is now returning. I assure all hon. Members that their views have been faithfully recorded and will be conveyed to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Beith

Further to the point of order. Now that the Minister has returned, it may be right to make it clear that at least some of us who join in the criticism do not direct it exclusively at her. As well as on this occasion, in the debate on the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Bill she was left on the Government Front Bench unsupported by her colleagues for long periods, and we deprecate that.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The view of the House has been strongly expressed. We shall now be better advised to continue, but I think that the House was right to express its opinion.

Sir B. Braine

I find it somewhat ironic that the excuse made by the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) for the non-attendance of Home Office Ministers was intense pressure of work when we are considering a Bill the chief objection to which is that it will unnecessarily lay extra burdens upon the hard-pressed police service in the front line against crime and disorder. However, I am delighted to see the hon. Lady now back in her place, and I pay tribute to the personal attention she gives to all the matters that I have referred to her from time to time.

I was about to draw attention to a number of points which the Police Superintendents' Association feels should be put to the Government and Parliament. First, it feels that it should be consulted—and I imagine that the Police Federation and the Association of Chief Officers also feel that they should be consulted—about appointments to the Board, not necessarily the appointment of particular individuals but the principles which should govern their appointment.

Secondly, no undue delay should be permitted in the Board's coming to decisions on cases referred to it. There might be merit in, for example, having a time limit of 28 days, with a provision that if no decision was taken within that period, or no clear reason was given for further delay, the case would fall by default.

Thirdly, each case should be dealt with by a Board member and not by one of the support staff, which would be tantamount to allowing the clerk or even the ushers of a court to pronounce judgment.

Fourthly, in order to ensure complete impartiality and public confidence in the new system, no ex-police officer should be appointed a member of the Board. I was glad to hear the Home Secretary give us an assurance about that this morning. However, the police consider that this restriction should be extended to members of the support staff.

Fifthly, adequate time should be provided for consultation and deliberation on the regulations which will be made under Clause 5. I mention that because in present circumstances regulations on conditions of police service come before the Police Advisory Board as often as not only some seven days before publication. Generally speaking that does not present unusual difficulties, but treatment of that kind for disciplinary matters covered in the Bill will be totally unacceptable.

These are not niggardly points, and I could raise a number of other matters. I shall not do so for the sake of other colleagues who wish to speak and because there will be the opportunity in Committee to go into all these matters in detail. Indeed, already enough is known about the Bill's proposals to cause anxiety throughout the police service. For example, in the Press notice accompanying the Bill it is suggested that in cases where the deputy chief constable sends papers to the Board he should do so without indicating the fact to any third party. What is the reason for that? Why should not the police officer against whom a complaint is being made be told of that fact? It is proposed that, where at a late stage the Board overrules the chief constable or requires charges to be brought, the officer and the complainant must be informed. Why are they not to be informed earlier? Would that not be more just?

It is not at all clear what will happen when a complaint is withdrawn or when the complainant desires no further action to be taken. It could be—here I am injecting an argument that has not been heard so far—that the chief constable would want to take disciplinary action despite the withdrawal of the complaint. However, there is no guarantee that the tribunal will hear the case. Similarly, when a police officer admits a charge there will be no reference to the Board. That emerged in the exchange at the beginning of the debate between my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison) and the Home Secretary. That suggests that the new machinery will deal with cases only when it can be fairly certain of finding an officer guilty and thus ensuring his punishment.

But the reality does not fit in with that sort of situation. We already know that a vast number of complaints are not sustainable. None the less, we can expect the number of complaints to grow. The whole object of the Bill is to ensure that it is easier to make complaints against the police. Therefore, the Board should deal with the situation as it is and not by a selective process. It should let the public know from the outset that a few police officers behave badly, a few more behave foolishly but that the vast majority of complaints are not justified. If that is made clear, the new machinery will be doing its job in a way which will be fair to the police and the public.

It seems clear that the Bill raises issues of principle and of detail which will call for substantial amendment if it is to be made acceptable to the police authorities, the police service and the great mass of law-abiding persons who are deeply concerned about the continual undermining of law and order.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

I know that the hon. Gentleman does not wish to mislead the House, but he has just said that the object of this legislation is to make it easier to bring complaints against the police. That is not the case. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that that is its position, will he tell the House in what way the Bill seeks to make it easier to bring complaints? Is it not the object of the Bill to ensure that complaints against the police are more properly investigated, not to make them easier to allege?

Sir B. Braine

This is not the first time during this debate when the hon. Gentleman has completely misunderstood what has been said. The object of the Bill is to give people confidence that complaints will be properly investigated. It is claimed that new machinery, having an independent element, will consider complaints against the police more fairly and more impartially. Clearly the new machinery is advocated because it will enable complaints to be made more easily. I do not understand the purpose of the hon. Gentleman's intervention.

The Secretary of State is a fair-minded man whose devotion to the idea that our police forces must be supported in a time of great difficulty is not questioned. I hope, however, that he will be prepared to accept changes in Committee which reflect, as the debate has already shown and will continue to show, grave public anxiety.

1.26 p.m.

Mr. Norman Atkinson (Tottenham)

The first comment I should make is that none of my hon. Friends who have taken part in the debate is in any way anti-police. We would do anything possible to ensure the recruitment of the police force. I hope that the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) will convey that message to those whom he represents. I repeat that we are not anti-police in any way. We shall give the hon. Gentleman and others every support in their efforts to increase the incomes and salaries of the police force. We believe that there is a justifiable case for increasing the wages of our police force, improving conditions and trying to reduce hours. I hope it is accepted that we are not in any way attempting to make complaints against the police force in the manner that has been suggested by some Conservative Members.

We welcome the Bill and we welcome the introduction of an independent element. We believe that we are now moving in the right direction. I think that that is a fair assessment of the general opinion which I have heard expressed by my hon. Friends.

When all is said and done, justice is measured by one's income and one's ability to buy justice. That has been demonstrated time and time again. I do not know how we are to overcome that problem. If a person has adequate means he can ensure for himself that he receives a fair trial and that he is not dependent upon methods of this kind for investigation into police action regarding anything that he may consider warrants investigation, or that he wants to correct. If he has suffered from violence or other sorts of police action such a person can go to the courts and ensure that he is adequately represented.

One or two complaints have been made against the Bill and against proposed legislation of this kind. I would say to Sir Robert Mark that he is in a privileged position, in that he can use the procedures of the House to introduce private legislation. Police authorities can promote Private Bills if they so wish. I am assured by the constitutionalists that that is the unique position of police forces and the powers under which they exist. Hon. Members may shake their heads but I have been informed that it is possible for police forces to introduce private legislation.

Reference has already been made to the unsatisfactory situation in London, including the relationship of police forces to the local authorities and the public generally. In the London area there are no watch committees which can act as a democratic check or as a method of improving the relationship between the police and the public. The existence of the London Boroughs Association, with its very inadequate representation, is no substitute for watch committees elsewhere. There is also some confusion in London about the various sections of the police and the part that they represent. I refer to the Special Branch at Scotland Yard, for instance, and the position of the other services attached to Scotland Yard, some of which are directly controlled by the Home Office.

Londoners are often aggrieved because they, per head of population, pay more for their police services than people elsewhere in the country. Doing the sums on this matter is often a difficult exercise because one cannot separate that which is paid for exclusively by the Home Office and that paid for by the community. There are no clear lines which separate all the various functions that go on in Scotland Yard, the Home Office and so on. It is a very unsatisfactory area of confusion. That is a sort of Londoner's view about this matter.

As to whether the legislation is necessary, on the information so far given by the Home Secretary it would appear that we are creating a bureaucracy for nothing at all, if, indeed, the existing situation is satisfactory. I think that my right hon. Friend said that there had been 31 convictions out of a total of 17,500 complaints. That seems a fantastic ratio. If that is so, we ought to be devising methods different from those outlined in the Bill. There is either something very seriously wrong with the existing procedure for complaint or the Bill is totally inadequate. No doubt much more will be said about that.

On the question of confidence in the police force, no one on the Government side of the House is attempting to undermine that. The question that is always asked, however, and always remains unanswered is, who raids the police social club in relation to drinking after hours? That is the question uppermost in the minds of many people. Who performs that function? The answer is that there is no answer. This is dependent upon the police force itself. That is the unsatisfactory aspect of the existing situation. That is why we applaud the introduction of an independent element.

There are three areas in which I have some reservations and suggest that the Bill, in its present form, is inadequate. The first is where violence is involved. I should think that that constitutes the great majority of complaints received by Members of Parliament. Once again, if a person has adequate means he will use the courts rather than these procedures if he wants to correct an injustice which he feels he had suffered by being the recipient of violence at a police station or elsewhere. He would go for damages against the police. That would be the way to do it.

We are here to represent the less privileged people in our society and to try to provide another method, but it is a method which, of necessity, is second-class as compared with the courts. Of necessity it must be a second-class method, because when violence has occurred the police have to try find a way of protecting themselves, and they immediately lay charges against the person who will wish to make the complaint, of his having assaulted the police. If problems of that sort arise in a police station, for instance, there are accusations of resistance to arrest, and charges are laid accusing the arrested person of assaulting the police. That is the one way in which the police can ensure that the whole business is sub judice.

That is why this method is second-class as compared with court procedures. So long as the police want to make matters sub judice, they can put them off for months on end and make sure that a complainant fails to obtain redress. The only way to overcome that problem is for the complainant to go for the finest available legal representation, and to go to court. Otherwise, an individual must put up with the second-class position.

I do not know the answer to the problem. If the charges are made, I do not see how an answer can be found in a tribunal or any other method of investigation, independent or otherwise, because the two things must be in clear conflict with each other. I do not see how we can overcome this very unsatisfactory problem.

I deal with a great number of complaints that are made through race relations organisations, and so on, concerning this sort of problem. I do not know how to overcome it. The existing provisions are unsatisfactory. One experiment that we have developed in Haringey, in London, is to have a group of people who are willing to be called upon by people—immigrants, particularly—if they are arrested and want to call someone. We have an arrangement whereby they can telephone one of a dozen people, who are ready at any time, day or night, to go immediately to the police station. Perhaps that system could be used as a model for a national scheme involving independent people, such as solicitors or members of the medical profession, and so on. People arrested in these circumstances and who want to complain about their treatment could have access to someone of that sort.

This is a very complicated matter. I am not altogether certain that this model would answer all the problems associated with the situation. None the less, this is an area which needs some sort of investigation.

There is an overlap between the provisions of this Bill and what already exists in the race relations legislation, and there may be some conflicts between the two. It would be a very complicated business, however, to make the functions in both areas quite separate.

There are problems which will arise from the Bill. The Bill needs either some strengthening or an entirely different approach.

My third point concerns the weakness of Clause 6, which deals with private police forces. In my experience as a Member of Parliament I have had two complaints made to me about private police forces. I well remember one of them, which concerned the British Railways police. Although it was suggested that they were covered by Section 49 of the Police Act, I was later informed that that was not so, that the Act was not binding upon the railway police, and that, of necessity, they were not controlled by certain provisions of the Police Act. A member of the British Railways Board with whom I had correspondence said that the Board would decide what would happen under certain circumstances and that the matter would not be referred to various other authorities for investigation.

That was a very unsatisfactory situation. The Home Office did not want to intervene. Certainly the British Railways Board was hostile to any intervention. I am also told by other hon. Members that this sort of situation exists in connection with dock police and various other people. It is an absolute nonsense that it should exist.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

Surely the hon. Gentleman is making one important point—namely, that our State industries, the nationalised industries, such as ports and railways, are less accountable in practice than the police service.

Mr. Atkinson

Indeed, they are less accountable, and very much so. It is nonsense to say that their police forces should exist as separate units, and that separate controls should exist. I do not know what justification there is for this, apart from a little empire building, and so on. Why should this sort of nineteenth century arrangement continue today? I hope that before very long this matter will be put right. The airports have recently solved their problem, I think, and they are now generally policed by the ordinary police force. Obviously that is a much better arrangement.

Those are the areas in which the greatest weaknesses lie and those are my criticisms. I hope that these matters will be put right and that there will be a chance, at a subsequent date, of not only looking at the experience of this legislation but doing something about strengthening the whole basis of race relations and trying to perfect the system.

I agree with the Opposition that the Title of the Bill should be "Complaints Against the Police Bill", and that it should not be left as it is.

1.40 p.m.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I shall take up the argument advanced by the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) on Clause 6 of the Bill later in my remarks. I share some of his concern.

However, I welcome the Home Secretary's action in introducing a Bill—which, I hope, can be improved in a number of ways—to which he made a commitment and for which the need is timeless. For that reason I strongly disagree with the line taken by the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mr. Gilmour) that the Bill is unsatisfactory in a number of respects and should not be introduced at this time. If that is his conclusion, he should advise his right hon. and hon. Friends to vote against it. If it is a bad Bill, it was a bad Bill last year, is a bad Bill now and will be a bad Bill next year. If it is desirable to improve the procedure for the investigation of complaints against the police, it is just as desirable now as it was then and will be in a year's time.

I recognise that the time is particularly difficult now for the police, in the sense that they are under a great strain and that threats posed against them loom larger now than they have for a number of years. Indeed, this suggests that it would have been better to take action on this matter somewhat earlier when the climate was, perhaps, a little less tense and unpleasant.

However grave the situation may be with which the police are faced, it does not absolve us from the need to ensure that the procedure for dealing with complaints is a satisfactory one. The very fact that we have found it necessary to give additional powers to the police suggests that once again we must ensure that the procedure for investigating the use of those powers is satisfactory. In addition, it is necessary to protect and enhance public confidence in the police and to ensure that the necessary degree of confidence is not dependent on a system of inquiry which is wholly internal either to the police force or, if other officers are involved, to the police service.

We do a disservice to the vast majority of hardworking, honest, reliable and conscientious policemen if we do not ensure that those in their number whose conduct gives rise to concern should be properly investigated. It is extremely important for the sake of the vast majority of our policemen upon whom we so greatly depend that the public should have confidence in the way in which the few among their number who are not satisfactory are investigated.

Not one hon. Member who has taken part in the debate has denied either that there are cases which give rise to concern or that the task which the police currently face is enormously difficult. I have considerable respect for the reservations advanced by those who spoke on behalf of the various police bodies. The hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Sir B. Braine) mentioned in a constructive way the reservations of police superintendents. I hope that we can examine carefully in further discussions some of those reservations.

Those of us who are in favour of a Bill on these lines have no illusions about the variety of complaints with which the police are now confronted. It is undoubtedly the case that, as well as complaints of serious intent and purpose, there are a considerable number of malicious complaints and that there is an increasing trend towards what I might call the automatic complaint. It ought to be apparent to those who want an improvement in the complaints procedure, as well as to those who oppose it, that there is a tendency among the more regular members of the criminal fraternity and the more regular visitors before the courts to include a complaint against the police as part of the standard response against having been brought to justice. There is no doubt—this is borne out by the high figure of complaints and the low figure of convictions—that there are many among the criminal fraternity who will make complaints against the police simply in the hope of getting their own back for having been brought to justice, or injustice as they see it. That fact, hard thought it may be for the police to accept, does not remove the necessity to ensure that the procedure is satisfactory. In substance it strengthens it because a satisfactory procedure in which the public have clear confidence would help to demonstrate how many complaints are of this kind.

In this context I want to refer to last year's annual report of the Chief Constable of Merseyside. In that report he pointed to the sheer quantity of complaints. He said: A total of 627 complaints were made against members of the Merseyside police…each complaint was thoroughly investigated by an officer of the rank of superintendent or above. Of the complaints made, 27 were substantiated"— that is, out of 627— disciplinary action was taken in four cases, criminal uproceedings were commenced in three cases and the remainder were dealt with by suitable advice being given to the officer and an apology being offered to the complainant. The complaints were voluntarily withdrawn or not pursued by complainants after investigation had commenced in 141 instances and in 108, the papers were necessarily referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions for his advice because criminal offences had been alleged against the officers concerned.… It is somewhat illuminating to note that of the 627 complaints made, 413 were received from persons who were either the subject of criminal proceedings or were being dealt with in situations which suggested the possibility of such proceedings. This type of complaint represents 65.8 per cent. of the total number. Those of us who support the principle of the Bill should not try to duck that important issue.

The chief constable's view is: Indeed, it is unfortunate that a system which was introduced primarily to enable a complainant with a genuine grievance to obtain some form of redress should become laden with counter-allegations; furthermore, it has emerged that the majority of them have been deliberate attempts to influence the outcome of criminal proceedings. It may be thought that there are more appropriate methods available to such complainants. It is too easy for people to exploit situations to make complaints which can never be substantiated and are malicious to the degree which can inhibit the legitimate duties of police officers and have a debilitating effect on police morale. However, he continues—and this is particularly important: Whatever the outcome of the continuing discussions, I feel sure the introduction of an independent element will demonstrate beyond doubt that the police investigate complaints impartially and thoroughly. Although the emphasis that I have put on this may not be that which the chief constable would wish, it is of particular importance that the system is such as to demonstrate that the behaviour of the police in the vast majority of cases is well above complaint, and, indeed, that many of the complainants put forward their complaints sometimes out of malice and sometimes out of a desire to get their own back on the police and that only in a minority of cases, important though these are, are the complaints of a kind which are subsequently substantiated.

Therefore, we owe it to the police to deal particularly with the reservations which they have expressed and which are shared strongly by many hon. Members who support the Bill. The point that an officer should, for example—unless there are supreme considerations to the contrary arising out of the way in which the complaint would have to be investigated—be furnished with details of the complaint made against him at the earliest possible stage is common cause with arguments that we have made in other situations unconnected with the police. We discussed the same point in the context of exclusion orders under the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Bill and the position of the person against whom the order is being made. The need for a person to see the evidence against him at the earliest possible stage and the substance of the complaints must be met. We must examine the position of the Police Federation, which has a legitimate role to play in seeking to defend its members—if necessary in the courts—when malice is shown against them to the extent of defamation. It is particularly important that the speed and expedition of the disciplinary appeals procedure should be reviewed at the same time as the Bill is before the House.

There are aspects from the point of view of the complainant that need to be examined more closely. We need to examine the composition of the Board. The Home Secretary has given some indication of who might not be suitable to serve on the Board. Perhaps he could go a little further and indicate for whom he might draw the members of the Board.

Perhaps the most important of the issues I want to raise in this context is one that arises from both directions and has been mentioned both by those for and by those against the argument. It is the anomalous position of a chief constable in situations in which he does not wish a complaint to be proceeded with and then finds himself in the roles of judge, jury and dispenser of punishment. It is at the heart of the compromise which has been sought. With good justification the Home Office has sought to find a way in which an independent element can be introduced which at the same time does not remove completely or seriously undermine the relationship of the chief constable to his force. This particular decision is clearly the outcome of that compromise.

However, it is one that we must seriously re-examine because it falls on both counts. It makes the position of the chief constable in relation to his force more difficult and not easier when, in the situation in which he decides not to proceed with a complaint, he is so closely involved in its subsequent stages. At the same time it gives rise to concern from the complainant that the complaint might not be properly dealt with for precisely the same reason. It may be that further discussions could be held between the Home Office and the representatives of the chief officers of police and that out of these discussions it might be recognised that a different approach could obtain in this type of case, to the advantage of both sides. I hope that this matter will be considered with some care, not only in Committee but between now and the start of the Committee stage.

Direct complaint to the Board might be appropriate in some circumstances. I sympathise with the arguments which led the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Mikardo) to talk about a complaints procedure with independent access and independent investigation, but in the years that I have been concerned with these matters I have never been able to satisfy myself that it could be implemented without creating a vast counter-police system with its own problems of accountability and at a considerable cost. However, direct complaint to the Board may be appropriate in some circumstances.

Mr. Hooley

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we have set up an independent investigatory procedure for the Civil Service without creating a counter-Civil Service? We have the Parliamentary Commissioner and the Ombudsman for the National Health Service, but a counter-Civil Service has not been created.

Mr. Beith

I remember that when we created the office of the Parliamentary Commissioner I wondered whether it was an appropriate device for dealing with police matters. However, by their nature most complaints against the police call for the type of investigation in which the police are skilled. It is a different matter when one says to a civil servant "Did you write this letter? Can you defend the statements which you made in it? Did they arise from the directions given by your Minister?" and we then proceed to talk about maladministration, which is what the Parliamentary Commissioner is concerned with.

It is very different to have to deal with complaints made against the police in the context of an investigation of criminal activity. It calls for a degree of detective activity, of police-type investigation, which is not called for in connection with the normal activities of the Parliamentary Commissioner. That argument can be taken further if amendments to the Bill are tabled, but I am not so far satisfied that we could set up an adequate alternative procedure which was not too large, too expensive and, in some ways, a police force in its own right.

Hon. Members have raised other matters which I need not pursue, but I should like to take up what the hon. Member for Tottenham said about Clause 6. I am glad that Clause 6 is in the Bill, although it is very weak. I have tabled a number of Questions to Ministers in the past two years simply to establish how many private police forces there are and who is responsible for them. The Home Office is particularly unhappy about indicating any responsibility. A number of Government Departments, ranging from the Department of the Environment to the Scottish Office, have some vague or distant responsibility for private police forces.

The House, by its procedures for private legislation, has over a century or more allowed the build-up of a network of private police forces which, to many members of the public, are indistinguishable from the police because the personnel wear similar uniforms and operate in similar situations, although usually in limited areas such as the docks or railway stations. To the public they are police, but they are not police in law. This is a serious difficulty, particularly in the context of complaints against the police.

If Clause 6 is not improved, it should be clear Government policy that Departments which have responsibility for private police forces should regard it as their duty to indicate that they expect arrangements of the kind referred to in the Bill to be concluded between those forces and the Police Complaints Board. That would be a very poor alternative, but it is the least we should expect. It would be better for the Bill itself to be improved in this respect. The reputation and standing of the police is bound up with this matter. It is important that anyone who exercises the powers of a policeman should be governed by a clearly accessible and satisfactory procedure.

With those comments, which I should like to direct to the attention of the Home Office, I commend further consideration of the Bill to the House and hope that it will receive a Second Reading—although, as I hinted, some hon. Members, including the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham, ought, on the logic of their arguments, to vote against it—and that as a result a satisfactory complaints procedure will be devised.

1.54 p.m.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North)

I welcome the Bill. I believe that most hon. Members are determined that it shall receive a Second Reading. Therefore, I do not wish to spend much time in praising it but, like other hon. Members, I want to put forward what I hope will be constructive criticisms.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary referred to the Private Member's Bill presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. White-head). The Bill that we are considering today is different from that Bill. There has been a process of negotiation, on the one hand, about the reasoned measure that my hon. Friend put forward and the sort of measure that the National Council for Civil Liberties would like to see passed and, on the other, about the reservations expressed by the police and other bodies in respect of such a measure. I wonder whether this Bill achieves the right compromise, or whether we are in danger of not satisfying either group of people, rather than satisfying both.

Perhaps in Committee we shall return to considering a measure closer to that put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North and try to build into it safeguards that will satisfy the justified fears of the police, particularly in connection with speeding up the process so that no one has a disciplinary inquiry hanging over him for a long time, and ensuring that anyone against whom a disciplinary charge has been made knows the charge at the earliest possible moment. Consideration should also be given to the question of compensation for the worry and anxiety caused by a malicious or unfounded complaint.

Some hon. Members have suggested that we should not be dealing with the Bill now because of the question of cost. A key consideration is that we are already spending a great deal of money on investigating complaints against the police. Can the Minister say how much is being spent? I suspect that, because of the way it is being spent by individual police forces, it would be difficult to give the amount, but it should be made clear that the money is being spent, and our concern is to satisfy the public that it is being spent. We are not seeking to increase the expenditure by a large amount.

The first question with which I want to deal is how people will make complaints against the police. One of the weaknesses of the proposed procedure is that the complaint will have to be made at the police station. That will be a major disadvantage. There are two problems with the present system. First, many people who may wish to make a complaint wonder what action the police will take against them. Some people are reluctant to go to the police station and make a complaint because they feel that it may well influence the police in deciding whether to prosecute. That is one of the disadvantages of the present system.

Another disadvantage is that it is likely that the person writing down particulars of the complaint knows well the person against whom the complaint is made. That causes two problems. Sometimes it means that the person is reluctant to believe it, and tries to discourage the complainant from making the complaint, in which case he feels disgruntled with the police. On the other hand, the person writing down the complaint may lean in the opposite direction and, because he knows the person against whom the complaint is made, may refuse to discourage someone from making what may not be a serious complaint, and will simply copy it down and put it through the machinery.

If we could provide for registration of the complaint with an independent body, there would be much greater opportunity, first, to ensure that the person making the complaint felt that it would be dealt with fairly, and, secondly, to discourage some of the unnecessary, frivolous complaints which are being made.

If, in taking down a complaint, a policeman attempts to discourage the complainant, he is in great difficulty. An independent person might find it easier to discourage a complainant. He might say "This is a complaint not against the police but against the law of the land". He might say "It is a small complaint, which should not be pursued unless, over six months, we receive similar complaints". There are considerable advantages in the initial complaint being made at a place other than a police station.

I come now to the question whether the investigation should be done by police officers. The strong argument for using police officers is that we need people with expertise who have served in the police force to carry out the investigation. I accept that to a certain extent, but would there not be considerable advantages either in building up a new expertise or in training people who have served in the police force for a certain time and using them in an investigating body, accepting that for the rest of their career they will be there and that there will be no opportunity for them to return to the police force? In many people's minds the person who sifts and collects the evidence has the key réle, rather than the people who make the final judgment.

I shall not list the other matters of concern to me, which have already been referred to, apart from mentioning the dual function of the person who decides whether there is a case and, having made a decision, is unhappy to sit in judgment.

The use of Police Federation funds to take to court a person who has made false allegations against the police is an odd proposal. There may be grounds for compensating a policeman who has been wrongly accused. For that to be done in the courts would mean that a policeman who had been wrongly accused by a man of substance would have a chance of redress, whereas the man who had been wrongly accused by someone with little money would not. If we are trying to strike a balance, we should look for a method of compensating the policeman who has been suspended who has suffered anxiety as well as a possible loss of earnings.

I commend the measure to the House and hope that it will receive a Second Reading. I hope that in Committee we shall discuss extending the independent element to the inquiry stage rather than confining it to the judgment stage.

2.3 p.m.

Mr. David Lane (Cambridge)

I shall not follow what the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) said, but if we are chosen I shall look forward in Committee to going into many of the points he raised.

I should declare an indirect interest because I act as adviser to the Association of Chief Police Officers. I say "indirect" because the area in which I give advice does not include disciplinary matters, although I am aware of the Association's general views on those matters. The chief officers of police are well able to put their point of view directly to the Home Secretary. They have done so during the consultation period, and I have no doubt that they will do so again now that the Bill is published.

To summarise my judgment on the Bill, it is necessary that the House should legislate for an independent element, but if we are to do so at this time of all times we must avoid putting an unreasonable extra burden on the police and undermining their morale. The passage of the Bill through the House should be seen outside not as a vote of criticism of the police but as a vote of confidence in their integrity.

I underline "at this time", as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mr. Gilmour). I hope that we shall keep in mind throughout the difficulties with which the police are having to cope. Let us make clear today and later our absolute support for what they are doing—in the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths)—in the front line of the defence of our free society. That was well put by the Minister of State in another place during a recent debate on home affairs.

It is lamentable that there is a small minority of Labour Members who find it easier to snipe at the police than to support them. The vast majority of us should take every opportunity—as today—to express our support. I feel all the more admiration for the police when so many other groups are pursuing their own interests with too little regard to the rest of the nation; meanwhile, the dedication of the police to the service of the community remains total.

As we seldom have a chance to debate police matters, and arising out of what I have just said, I put two general questions to the Under-Secretary of State which I hope she will answer, if only briefly. Will she bring us up to date on the strength and establishment of the police? The Minister of State said in the other place that the net gain to the police service in England and Wales in the first 10 months of this year was nearly 4,000. May we know what is the latest prospect for the year as a whole? Secondly, will the hon. Lady give the strongest possible assurance that, even at this time of economic difficulty, no financial restraints will be laid on the police which prevent them getting nearer to their establishment?

I recollect the time when my right hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton (Mr. Carr) took the decision in principle to introduce some element of independence into the complaints investigation procedure. I applaud the responsible way in which police officers of all ranks responded. The Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire recently said: At no time have the police been afraid of an outside body looking at our investigations. Do the public at large realise the enormous care that is already devoted to the investigation of complaints within the service? Relatively few complaints are substantiated. Police officers, like Members of Parliament, Ministers and others, from time to time make errors of judgment. They are human, as we are. I accept that there is some unease among the public about the present system, and it is necessary to ensure complete confidence in the integrity of that system.

I include confidence among the minority groups—and I am thinking particularly of the West Indian community. The development of an independent element, whether exactly as the Bill proposes or, as I should prefer, in a simplified fashion, will be an important factor in reassuring the West Indian community as a whole. I pay tribute to the efforts made by the police to bridge the gap of suspicion that has existed in some areas between the police and the West Indian community.

I believe that we are justified in saying to the leaders of that community "Now it is up to you to move forward to meet the genuine efforts of the police to bridge the gap and end this suspicion." I hope that the West Indian community will back the new efforts being made by the police to recruit more men from the West Indian as well as the Asian community. This Bill will be a valuable step in strengthening mutual confidence.

If we are to legislate at this time—I share the doubts expressed about the timing—there is a heavy obligation on the House not to go too far, not to create too elaborate a structure, not to take a sledge-hammer to crack a nut. In these respects it is even more vital that we should reassure the mass of the general public and the police.

In a Written Answer to the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead), when he was summarising the Government's approach, the Home Secretary said: It is equally important to avoid bringing to bear a disproportionate weight of skilled resources on matters of a minor nature."—[Official Report. 30th July 1974; Vol. 878, c. 144.] I do not criticise the time it has already taken to bring these proposals to the Second Reading stage of a Bill. If necessary, we should take still more time to ensure that the balance is right. When the Home Secretary published his proposals in 1974, some of us commented that the scheme was too complicated. Further changes have been made since then. I welcome in particular the assurance that there will be no double jeopardy and the reinforcement by the Home Secretary of the principle that final disciplinary authority must remain with chief officers.

But the contents of the Bill may prove too complicated in practice. The Home Secretary used the word "practical" in commending the Bill to the House, but I doubt whether it will prove as practical as he believes. I share the doubts about the Bill which have already occurred to chief constables. I wonder whether the whole scope of the Bill is more comprehensive than it needs to be. We must look in Committee at the definition of the term "complaint". A great blanket is cast over the whole area of complaints, and it might be wiser to confine the new procedure only to some part of the whole.

Linked with that, I am very fearful lest this procedure, operated with however much good will, may lead to considerable delays. It is elaborate and will generate more paper work and absorb more time of senior officers. It could also cause undue suspense to police officers while their case was being considered, and affect police morale. We are casting too wide a blanket. The structure is going to be very complicated, and long delays would be bound to affect morale.

I am also sceptical about the cost. I cannot accept the figure of £300,000 as realistic and I hope that the Home Office will look into it further before the Committee stage.

What kind of people do the Government have in mind to appoint to the Board? Its smooth working, or otherwise, will depend more than anything else on the type and quality of people who are administering the system and on the kind of working relationship they have with the police, with individual complainants and with bodies like the National Council for Civil Liberties which may be involved as well. It will help the House to form judgments later in the proceedings if the hon. Lady could be more forthcoming on this question now.

Today we are going to give the Bill a Second Reading, I hope without a Division. Let us use the Committee stage to simplify the new machinery. Our aim should be to combine ample reassurance of the public with the minimum extra burden on the police.

2.14 p.m.

Mr. Frank Hooley (Sheffield, Heeley)

I welcome at least one thing that the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane) has said—that there is some unease about complaints against the police and the way in which they are handled at the moment, and that there are difficulties with particular members of the community. That is something which no other Opposition Member has had the grace to admit in the debate.

The debate is about an important aspect of civil liberties. We are, in a sense, considering the age-old and intractable problem quis custodiet custodes?—who polices the police? That is only one aspect, but it is extremely important. Contrary to what has been said by Opposition Members, this is the right time for the Bill to be brought forward, because over the last 12 months we have had reason to be concerned about certain aspects of citizens' rights and civil liberties. We have had the introduction of control units, although I am glad to say that they were abandoned because of pressure from this House and medical opinion. We have had the scandal of bail being refused. I am glad that my right hon. Friend proposes to put that right by new legislation. We have also had public criticism of the abuse of interrogation procedures by the police. These criticisms came not from laymen like myself but from highly qualified and expert legal people.

The House, through the Prevention of Terrorism Act, has enormously extended the powers of the police and the Executive over the liberty and rights of individuals. I find it rather astonishing, therefore, that the Opposition should complain that we are undermining the powers and authority of the police in their difficult task of combating the terrorism that plagues our society. It is important that we should pay attention to civil liberties, because this House is their ultimate guardian. That is not a major aspect, but it is certainly an important aspect of the whole problem.

I declare a certain interest in this matter, because I have been assaulted by a policeman. It was on that occasion that I discovered, to my amazement, that if I wanted to complain the police themselves would investigate the matter. From that date I have been concerned with the whole problem of investigation of complaints against the police, because in my naive mind at that time—it was some years ago—I had taken it for granted that some independent person would investigate such complaints. I was startled to find that this was not the case.

I have also been interrogated by the police, in a bullying and disagreeable manner, for no better reason than that I was going home late at night on a bicycle after visiting a friend. I am basing what I say not on hearsay or third party comments, but on one or two personal experiences—not very terrible ones, but ones that I found very disagreeable and for which, to my surprise and annoyance, there was no proper remedy.

My hon. Friend the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) was right in drawing attention to the disadvantage arising from the fact that the complaint must in the first instance be made to the police themselves. I shall not go into the personal aspects of that matter, but there is a lot to be said for arranging for the complaint to be registered with the new Complaints Board, even if, subsequently, the actual investigation is carried out by the police themselves. That would provide a useful basis of evidence as to the nature of the complaint. It would be possible to analyse what kind of complaints are generally made against the police and how many of them are frivolous, and I would not put it beyond the wit and ability of the Board to decide what is frivolous and what really needs to be investigated.

Over a period of time, it might throw up ideas or means by which the number of complaints could be reduced by different procedures and different ways of handling matters as between the ordinary citizen and the police. A valuable function could be performed by the Board if the initial complaint went to it rather than to the police, because it would provide the House and other bodies with evidence of the kinds of complaint that are normally made. It might even suggest how these could be dealt with.

The fundamental objection to the Bill is that it does not provide for independent investigation of the complaint itself. Numerous Members have made the point that the ultimate decision on a particular complaint will be not exactly determined but very greately influenced by the nature of the initial investigation.

It is extremely difficult for a person who, at a later stage, deals with a particular complaint or difficulty to set aside or override or overlook the findings of the person or persons who carried out the detailed inquiry in the first instance. I am not suggesting that those findings are necessarily bad or wrong; the trouble is that the investigation will be carried out by the body against whom the complaint has been made.

Since this legislation, I understand, is designed to improve confidence between the police and citizens at large, so long as the investigation remains in the hands of the police, to that extent the confidence will, I am sure, be diminished.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) suggested that to have an independent investigation of complaint is to set up a counter-police force. I think that this is a gross exaggeration. The House has already accepted the principle that if there are accusations of maladministration in Government Departments the investigation of those accusations should be carried out independently. We have appointed a special officer to do this. He has a staff. He has been carrying out this work, and the House has been sufficiently impressed by this principle to extend it to local government, the National Health Service, and so on.

I cannot accept the argument that by creating an independent investigatory procedure and an independent investigatory body we are somehow setting up a counter-police force and undermining the morale of the police.

On the question of disciplinary control, I believe that hon. Members are confusing disciplinary powers—which certainly must be exercised by the chief constable and the officers concerned—with the investigation of particular complaints, which is quite a different matter.

By appointing an independent body to investigate a complaint, the disciplinary powers of the chief constable are in no way undermined; in fact, in some ways, by detaching the investigation from the police, the chief constable's work is made simpler, because he is simply called upon to act on a finding and is not directly or indirectly involved in all the complications of that finding. I feel that there is a very strong case for carrying out an independent investigation.

Then there is the curious feature of the Bill—it has been touched upon by other hon. Members—that if the policeman concerned admits the validity of the complaint, the matter is dealt with forthwith and the Complaints Board never knows anything about it. I am bound to say—the hon. Gentleman opposite touched on this point—that I think this is a serious weakness in the whole procedure.

Policemen, including chief constables, are ordinary human chaps, like hon. Members of this House. If a complaint is made and it appears, not necessarily to the chief constable but to the friends and advisers of the man of whom the complaint is made, that there may be serious trouble about it, the chances are almost certain that they will say, "For goodness' sake plead guilty to this, take your chance with the chief constable, and do not get involved with the Police Complaints Board." That process itself could undermine the independent nature of the system contained in the Bill.

Then there is the absolutely weird provision concerning the powers of the Commission and of the chief constable when a dispute arises. On this point there was a very curious coincidence of opinion between the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mr. Gilmour) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Mikardo). It is utterly absurd that the chief constable should determine that there is no case to answer, no need for action, but that when he passes the complaint to an independent board that board decides that there is a case to answer and that an investigation is required, and that the matter then proceeds to a stage where there is a formal hearing, with the chief constable himself acting as chairman of that hearing. The position can then arise in which the chief constable, not unnaturally, upholds his previous judgment and is overruled by his two fellow assessors on the tribunal.

There is also the situation in which the chief constable has determined, in the first instance, that there was no justification for the complaint, has decided, as chairman of the tribunal, that there was no justification for a complaint, and is then faced with the necessity of taking disciplinary action against the policeman concerned, contrary to his own judgment. This is quite a absurd situation, which cannot seriously have been intended by the drafters of the Bill, and must certainly be tidied up in Committee.

On one point I agree wholeheartedly with what a number of Opposition Members have said, namely, that the policeman against whom the complaint is made must have full access to the evidence against him and absolutely full rights to defend himself in every way. It would be quite intolerable if a policeman had accusations or complaints levelled against him and was not given the full details of these complaints and a full chance to defend himself either before his own superiors or before any independent tribunal that was set up. I doubt very much whether there is any difference of opinion on either side of the House on this matter.

On the issue of making complaints, I should like to see some arrangement under which complaints could, in the first instance, be referred to a Member of Parliament. I am not saying that this should be an exclusive channel, but there would be some advantage in its being made known to persons who wished to make complaints that a normal and proper channel was through a Member of this House.

The House of Commons is the ultimate guardian of the civil liberties of the subjects of this Kingdom. It would be very useful if we became acknowledged as a channel for examining this kind of problem, just as it has been acknowledged that a Member of Parliament is a normal and proper channel for complaints against the general administration of the Departments of State. That principle has already been agreed.

It need not be the case that very complaint should come to a Member of Parliament, but there would be some advantage in making it known to citizens that if they wished to pursue a complaint in this fashion it was open and proper for them to do so.

I shall certainly not vote against the Second Reading of the Bill. I hope that House will pass it. I believe that there is enormous range for improving it in Committee. I also believe that much more fundamental changes are needed in our system of justice. I was very glad to hear a speech by the Minister of State, Home Office, a little while ago in which he suggested that we might move towards the Scottish system of removing from the police the power of prosecution and vesting it in an entirely separate office That would be a much more fundamental and much more important change in the relations between the police and the public, and one that I hope will come about in the not-too-far-distant future. For the moment, however, I hope that the House will accept the Bill and that it will be immensely improved in Committee.

2.30 p.m.

Mr. R. A. McCrindle (Brentwood and Ongar)

At the outset of my contribution to the debate, I have to declare an interest in that I am parliamentary consultant to the British Transport Police Federation. This is one of the bodies implicitly referred to in Clause 6 of the Bill, to which the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) and the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) referred. I wish to tell the hon. Member for Tottenham that I understand and agree that, to the public, the British Transport policeman and the ordinary Metropolitan policeman are indistinguishable and that the public expect the same protection, albeit in different circumstances, from a policeman irrespective of his title. That is a position which is accepted by the British Transport Police. I ought also to say that the British Transport Police have no wish to escape from the responsibility in terms of complaints against them which the Bill proposes to introduce in regard to the civil police.

The hon. Member for Tottenham spoke of the British Rail police and his dealings with them. His description of them implies that he came into contact with them some time ago, because, of course, they are now the British Transport Police. It may be that the hon. Gentleman did not appreciate that they have voluntarily accepted the code of conduct in regard to discipline which applies to the civil police. Therefore, although I do not challenge his comments about the existence of semi-private forces, I hope I can reassure him to some extent that the British Transport Police are as interested as anyone in communicating a sense of security to the public when they are on British Transport Commission premises and that they certainly hope to be included in the embrace of the provisions of the Bill contained in Clause 6.

The hon. Member for Tottenham also spoke of the responsibilities of different Departments of State. He had no idea how tender a spot in me he touched. Sufficient to say that I am at the moment in constant correspondence with both the Department of the Environment and the Home Office about whether responsibility for the British Transport Police at the moment existing in the Department of the Environment should remain there. However, the correspondence is at a delicate stage, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I say no more about it other than that I understand his point and that it is the subject of correspondence.

As regards the wider aspects of the Bill, it has been said repeatedly today that there is a degree of anger within the police and that, although that anger may appear irrational, it can be explained by the feeling that the Bill is simply another turn of the screw to which the police feel that they have been subjected over the past few years.

The police also regret the failure of the Bill as at present drafted to deal with frivolous complaints. They see the serious harassment to the police which is implicit in frivolous complaints because, after all, every one has to be investigated and that involves money, time and manpower. I suggest that the Bill might be an opportunity to help the police in this regard by putting the complainant in future at risk in legal costs.

As a non-lawyer I have no vested interest in making this suggestion. But, whereas in the past the police could be said to be the judge, the jury and perhaps even the executioner in their own cause and, therefore, it would be unfair to allow them to condemn the complainant in costs, given the new system with its independent element perhaps it would be appropriate to introduce this new dimension. I believe that it would satisfy the police, and it might act as a quid pro quo for the imposition of the Bill.

The public rightly expect to be protected against police harassment, and the Bill moves in that direction. But the police, too, expect some protection against frivolous or malicious complaints. If for no better reason than to make people think twice, I suggest that consideration of the imposition of legal costs should be given a fair run by the Government.

If the inquiries that the Bill makes possible are to give the public greater reassurance and be seen to be truly independent, is not this an argument for complainants being legally represented? If the Police Complaints Board is to be seen by the public in the proper light, would not that be better done if the public were seen and heard through their legal representatives?

The police feel quite annoyed about the introduction of the Bill, even though it is not all that radical a measure. I suggest that that is because the morale of the police force is low, and it is low because of what might be described as the manifestations of the so-called civilised society. I echo what a number of my hon. Friends said earlier. The police are upset by what they see as a soft sentencing policy, by releases from closed mental institutions and by their frustration over the failure of the Children and Young Persons Act 1969. They are concerned about the poorish recruitment to their ranks, by the pay structure and by several other factors. In short, they feel that they do not have the regard of society which their réle in protecting society merits.

Although it is right to support this measure as a move forward in protecting the public, I hope that the clear message will go out from this House that the police truly are appreciated. They undertake a thankless task, and they probably do it better than any other police force in the world.

I give a broad general welcome to the principle involved in the Bill, but I hope my point will be taken on board that only by having a police force whose members feel that they have the confidence of the public shall we be able to be sure that we are being protected by them. If the Under-Secretary can highlight, as the Home Secretary did, that the Bill is as much aimed at protecting the police as anyone else, it will be of great satisfaction to the police service.

2.38 p.m.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

I shall not detain the House for very long. I begin by giving a general welcome to the Bill, which introduces an independent element in the investigation of complaints against the police.

My chief purpose in intervening is to register my disappointment that the Bill relates only to England and Wales. I know that consultations are going on in Scotland and that the intention is to introduce a separate Scottish Bill as soon as they have been completed, some time later in the Session. However, I am not asking that the provisions of this Bill should be extended in toto to Scotland. We already have an independent element in Scotland. The Procurator Fiscal can investigate complaints against the police in his own right. His is a totally separate administrative procedure in which he does the prosecuting and the police simply collect the evidence. This is one aspect of Scottish law that I should like to see translated into the law of England and Wales.

Nevertheless, it is a pity that by an accident of timing we should deal with complaints against the police exclusively in the English and Welsh contexts when we could easily have had a United Kingdom Bill—because the principle is the same—and had the matters dealt with together although, perhaps, in different form.

There are one or two aspects of the debate on which I should like briefly to comment. The first is the question of how complaints should be made in the first instance. I was interested in the comments of my hon. Friends the Members for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) and Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley). Like other hon. Members, I am visited from time to time by people with complaints against the police. In those circumstances I write to the chief constable setting out as much as I can of the complaint. He then chooses to regard it as a form of complaint by the individual concerned, investigates it on the individual's behalf and sends me a copy of the results of his investigation. That is just one way—I do not say it should be the only way—in which complaints can be transmitted other than by directly going to a police station.

People sometimes feel inhibited when trying to explain themselves to the police directly. It may be preferable to have someone outside the police who is able to take down the complaint and pass it on for further investigation. I accept that there is a need for this, because people are aggrieved sometimes at the way the police deal with them. However, some people do not always feel satisfied with the result of an investigation because they find that their complaint has not been upheld. I do not think we should look for an ideal situation whereby everyone can be wholly satisfied.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stock-port, North suggested that there should be a separate investigatory branch of the police which might be staffed by ex-policemen. I do not believe that that would remove the aggravation. People would say "Once a policeman, always a policeman. He is an ex-policeman and, therefore, we cannot accept his judgment." It might be unfair for people to say that, but if there were a separate branch staffed by ex-policemen I do not believe that it would lead to the complete removal of the suspicion that the police always look after their own. Moreover, if there were a separate branch complaints would be made against it. Therefore, in my view, that branch might have to be staffed by people who were trained for the job and who had never been in the police.

I should like to raise a cautionary note about investigatory bodies. I was struck by the great investigations into corruption being carried out in Hong Kong. A special branch of the Hong Kong police was set up called the anti-corruption squad. It was not long before allegations were made, and subsequently proved, that the anti-corruption squad was more corrupt than the civil police. The only reason why I raise that matter is to illustrate that there is absolutely no way in which one can ensure that everyone is satisfied that there has not been bias in favour of the police in the investigation of a complaint.

I welcome the Bill. I believe that the independent element will go a long way towards removing the suspicion that people are unfairly treated. I also believe that it will go a long way towards improving the relations that the police nave with the public. It will be to the advantage of the complainant and to the great advantage of the police. I hope that the Bill will be welcomed on all sides and in all quarters.

2.44 p.m.

Mr. Edward Gardner (South Fylde)

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mr. Gilmour) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) have both been attacked during the course of the debate for suggesting that there might be a more appropriate time for the Bill to be brought before the House. In other words, they were attacked for suggesting that the Home Office had better things to do with its time than to bring before the House legislation of this character, however important it may be for legislation of this kind ultimately to be put forward.

The point made by my right hon. and hon. Friends has been demonstrated by the fact that the Government Front Bench was empty of Home Office Ministers for some considerable time. I should like to make it absolutely clear and beyond any danger of misunderstanding that I do not wish in any way to criticise or seem to criticise the absence of the hon. Lady the Under-Secretary, because for hours on end, alone and almost deserted by everybody, she is to be seen sitting on the Front Bench in debate after debate concerning the Home Office.

It must be recognised, as I am sure it is, in both the House and the country when we talk about complaints against the police that visitors to our country consider our police force as one of the wonders of the world. In no other country can they find a police force with such high standards of integrity and such scrupulous regard for duty. Perhaps I may indulge in a little local pride. If that praise is deserved, no force in the country deserves it more than the police force in my native Lancashire.

However, it must be understood that, of all the callings a man or woman may have, the police force provides perhaps the most continuous and obvious kind of temptations. For example, there are the crude temptations of corruption and the more subtle temptations of persuading a police officer, in his zeal, in some way to tamper with the prosecution case either by adding evidence which is not there or by producing admissions which are not made. However, these temptations are very rarely affective. Indeed, day after day, hour after hour, thousands of police officers in this country resist those temptations and uphold the traditions of the force.

However, it is essential when complaints are made of a breakdown of discipline and a falling away from the high standards—no matter how rarely that may happen—that they should be investigated. I appreciate that the Bill, which in its present form is imperfect, has as its object the discovery of offences and, ultimately, punishment when the substance of the complaint is justified.

I am a member of the executive committee of Justice. I am not one of those who necessarily agree with everything which the executive committee puts forward. However, as a member of the executive I believe that I could be of some service and perform a duty if I were to put before the Minister some of the more important views of Justice. Mr. Geoffrey Garrett, the chairman of the executive committee, recently wrote a letter to The Times setting out in full the views of the committee. I see that the Under-Secretary is indicating that she has read the letter. I should like to emphasise one or two of the points raised.

One of the many weaknesses of the Bill is that it makes no provision for any investigations into a complaint before an accused person who may be making the complaint against the police is tried, or, having been tried, has had his appeal determined. In other words, because of some malpractice by the police, an accused person could find himself being tried upon evidence which was subsequently established to be defective. There is no doubt that normally the accused would have to wait until after his trial and after his right to appeal had been exhausted before the complaint would be investigated. I hope that the Minister will look at this point to see whether something can be done, not only in the interests of the accused, but in the interests of justice generally, to abolish this defect.

The Police Complaints Board will have no power to make sure that a report which is sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions is founded upon a full and fair investigation. I know that the Minister has read Mr. Garrett's letter, but perhaps I may quote one part of it. It says: the new Bill…should provide that, where there is a serious complaint of police malpractice in connexion with a prosecution, the factual results of a full and fair inquiry directed by a body independent of the police should be made available to the accused and to the courts before his guilt or innocence is finally decided. However important it may be—and it is vital—that the public should be satisfied that where complaints against the police are made they should be fully and fairly investigated, it is equally important that such complaints, the large majority of which are empty of merit, should never be allowed to impede the work of the police or to cause the police to lose confidence in their belief that they are supported in what they do for our benefit by the public at large.

2.52 p.m.

Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

It is no exaggeration to say that our whole way of life is in some peril. Once, it was virtually universal for there to be respect for Parliament as the maker of laws and the police as the agency for enforcing those laws. Alas, this is no longer the case. There have been references to the various manifestations of this development, not least to certain incidents in the precincts of this House earlier this week. In 1974, in the Metropolitan Police district alone, 2,925 police officers were injured as a result of being assaulted while on duty. That figure represented a 12 per cent. increase over the previous year. The rule of law, the whole basis of our system of government, is under constant attack from many quarters.

Perhaps this is not the appropriate time to discuss the diminished respect for Parliament, but it behoves us, as parliamentarians, to do all in our power to maintain the status of the police—that thin blue line which stands between us and anarchy. If we are to be successful in this it is vital that the public should have the utmost confidence in the police and that the police should have confidence in themselves. It is because I believe that to be the principle behind the Bill, and that it will achieve both those ends, that I shall support it certainly in spirit if not in every letter.

If the public believe that complaints are properly handled they will have more respect for the police, and that is bound to be reflected in the morale of the police. That is a very important factor. I have been impressed by the fact that in the last few months, in two separate meetings with me, my local police have voluntarily mentioned the complaints procedure as a priority for change, and its effect on police morale.

The numbers prove that the police, like any other group of people, have their black sheep and include people who simply succumb to the normal human failings of losing their temper and giving in to temptation. There tends to be an idea that the police are different from other men. That is no more true of the police than it is of Members of Parliament. Nevertheless, we expect higher standards of them. If that is so, they surely deserve stronger safeguards against false accusations that they are not maintaining those standards. There seems to be nothing in the Bill to cover that point. For example, there is no facility for a policeman to take action in a case in which a complaint made against him is proved to be unjustified.

Would it be unreasonable for a policeman to be given the opportunity of having a copy of the complaint—not simply the gist of it—when it is made? At the moment he is provided with a rough outline, and only if it is decided to continue with the proceedings does he get a detailed copy. Why can he not have the details of the complaint when it is made? Nothing in the Bill covers that point.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Fylde (Mr. Gardner) referred to the unnecessary delay that sometimes occurs in these inquiries. It is within the rules for the investigating officer to limit the range of his inquiries if he believes that the complaint is ill-founded or trivial, but one wonders how often that happens. Can there not be some means of sifting the genuine complaints from the trivial or ill-founded? That would save valuable police time and expense.

Surely it is grossly unfair for an officer to have proceedings hanging over him for many months. Delays of 18 months have been referred to. That cannot be right, from any aspect of justice. If the complaint involves a person who is charged with an offence it may be necessary to wait for the proceedings to be completed before pushing ahead with the complaint, but this is not necessarily so in every instance. If the complaint is separate from the issues of the charge, could it not be investigated without this delay?

Another omission from the Bill relates to the means of actually registering complaints. The Home Office leaflet giving guidance to those wishing to complain suggests writing to the chief constable. Many people have a great deal of difficulty in composing a simple letter, let alone a letter of this nature. The other suggestion in the leaflet is that people should call at a police station. The hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) effectively covered the arguments against that. Why is it not possible to register a complaint with a Member of Parliament? I appreciate that this would throw yet more work upon our heads. Why, also, should it not be possible to register the complaint at the local post office, or some such place?

I have commented on what is not in the Bill and what may be inserted in Committee. I turn briefly to what is in the Bill. Since the working group spent a lot of time on these proposals and felt unable to submit any unanimous recommendation despite the large number of schemes put to it, it is hardly likely that the Home Secretary will be able to please everyone. It is a pity that there is so much feeling against the idea of the police investigating complaints against themselves.

We have heard about the manner of operation of the Parliamentary Commissioner. This system has worked successfully. The Parliamentary Commissioner is an ex-civil servant. One of the advantages that he has is that he knows the way around Whitehall, and how the Civil Service operates. He is, nevertheless, quite independent. I would have thought that there was merit in having an ex-policeman operating in a somewhat similar way.

The Home Secretary has, however, decided to operate through the Police Complaints Board and the disciplinary tribunal. It is vital that one of the members of the tribunal should be the chief officer of the force involved. Perhaps, in the Government reply we shall be given information about the sort of people who, it is anticipated, will be appointed to the Board and sit on the tribunals. The quality of these people is important. The only guide we have in the Bill concerns the two categories of people ineligible for membership—the rather curious combination of bankrupts and Members of Parliament.

Is it in the Home Secretary's mind that people such as magistrates and barristers should be members of the Board? It seems that they would be well qualified, and would have an ideal background. On the other hand, it could be argued that they would not be fully independent, since they have some involvement with legal processes. Does the Home Secretary envisage that people such as business men and trade unionists should be among the part-time members of the Board? I hope that in Committee we shall reconsider the proposal that once a complaint has been referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions it cannot be registered with the Complaints Board. I am not entirely happy about the implication of that.

I hope that when the Bill goes into Committee it will be carefully examined and that all the points that I have mentioned will be discussed. If, ultimately, we have an Act that goes some way towards meeting public doubts on this issue and relieving police concern, it will be no small achievement.

3.3 p.m.

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, East)

In common with all other hon. Members who have so far spoken I accept the principle that an independent element needs to be introduced into the investigation of complaints against the police. At the same time, I agree with some of my hon. Friends who have said that this Bill is wrongly titled, ill-timed and badly drafted, and represents an excessively cumbersome way of going about the procedure. The more I have studied the Bill the more it has seemed that—to amend the famous line from Horace—the Home Office mice have been in labour and have given birth to a ridiculous mountain.

We have 12 pages that are to be added to the statute book, £300,000 of new public expenditure—I bet that that is an underestimate—14 new full- or part-time paid members of the board, and 30 or so new civil servants. A considerable increase in the bureaucracy surrounding complaints against the police is inevitable. All of this is done at the risk of undermining police morale, at a time when we least want to see it undermined in any way.

Instead of this great white elephant, with all the apparatus contained in it, can we not find a way of inserting an independent element into this complaints procedure more effectively, more cheaply and more simply? I believe that we can. Starting from the fundamental point, when a complaint is made against the police under this new machinery, Section 49 of the Police Act 1964 will come into operation. After that it will be followed, if necessary, by the procedures of the Complaints Board. Taken together, those measures amount to a sledgehammer, which might be appropriate for a serious complaint. However, often the complaint will be a nut, which will be the victim of these two sledgehammers swung in its direction.

I wonder whether there is not a much better and simpler way to sift the complaints, right at the beginning, to see which are frivolous, minor or invented—in short, those which just do not begin to stand up. That would save a massive amount of police time and the time of the new board. Perhaps we could have a French-style juge d'instruction to assess the nature of the complaint at the beginning. I believe that the Police Federation has suggested that we should have legally-qualified police disciplinary advisers to assist in dealing with complaints at the beginning of the procedure. An initial assessment of that kind could be very beneficial. Few people realise how thoroughly complaints against the police are investigated already, and how much precious police time and manpower are devoted to investigating often minor and irrelevant complaints.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) suggested that Members of Parliament should be the channel of communication for complaints against the police. I do not agree. Like all other hon. Members, I have at my surgeries people who come with complaints against the police. Only a week or two ago someone suggested to me that a police officer had been grossly offensive. I was prepared to pass the complaint on to the chief constable, but a quiet conversation established that no bad language had been used. The worst that could be said about the officer concerned was that he had spoken a little sharply to the complainant. After a few minutes' conversation the complainant saw the common-sense point of view and said that it was not worth making a fuss about the matter, so nothing was done about it. Such a procedure—though I hope not through Members of Parliament—which sifted futile complaints from the serious ones at the initial stage would save a great deal of time and effort for everyone concerned.

No one doubts that every member of the police service wants serious complaints to be thoroughly investigated. No one wants to see rotten apples continue to work and to flourish in the police service. I do not think that there will be any strenuous opposition to the principle involved, but one can see several flaws in the details of the Bill. It is essential to be fair to the police against whom complaints are made. Here I echo the comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) and other hon. Members, that it is essential that in virtually every case the police officer concerned should be supplied with details of the complaint against him.

I am a little worried by Clause 4, which says, in effect, that the question of guilt will be determined by the tribunal as a whole, acting, if necessary, by a majority. We know from what the Home Secretary said that the Board could consist of as many as 14 members. Could the majority be as close as seven to six? Should the same majority rules apply as in jury trials, where the figure is ten to two?

Mr. Roy Jenkins

The tribunals will consist of three members, two from the Board and the chief officer.

Mr. Aitken

I am glad to have that matter cleared up. I apologise for my misunderstanding of that part of the clause.

I also echo the statement of my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) that the time scale in investigating complaints is very important. In the interests of the police officer against whom the complaint is made, we must make sure that he is not an outcast and a pariah in his own force when an investigation is needlessly running to enormous length.

I wish to make the broad political point that the Bill is a curious example of double standards by the Government. It is a bizarre juxtaposition that on a Friday we are debating a Bill that unites the Government and all their supporters in saying that it is right and proper that there should be an independent element in tribunals investigating complaints against the police, whereas on Tuesday we shall be dealing with a Bill that is an old favourite for those of us who were concerned with its predecessor in the previous Session, namely, the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Amendment) Bill.

We know that once again the Government will vigorously oppose the insertion of an independent element in trade union tribunals. Indeed, they have said repeatedly that there is no necessity for an independent element, even in those trade union tribunals that are considering the question whether a man should lose his livelihood. This is a most extraordinary case of double standards, which should gravely embarrass the Government. We cannot have one law for the police and another for the trade unions. The sooner the Government realise that they are guilty of double standards the better.

We should realise that we are all aiming for a common goal. Perhaps that goal is best set out in the speech of the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, on 8th November 1972. Sir Robert Mark said: What we badly need is a means of rapid disposal of the vast number of trivial and groundless complaints and for satisfying the public…of the thoroughness and impartiality of investigations in those cases not giving rise to criminal proceedings, in which the complainant or a political pressure group purporting to act on his behalf, continues to express dissatisfaction after the result is known. That is a good summary of what we would all like to see.

I believe that the simple formula that I have been suggesting—some source of preliminary independent assessment—would dispose of needless and groundless complaints without requiring any huge machinery. After the result of the police investigation is known, I think that to review it we would do better to have something more on the lines of the Ombudsman, the Health Service Commissioner, the Local Government Commissioner or even the Lay Observer, who reviews complaints against members of the Law Society, instead of this major Police Complaints Board apparatus. That would be much simpler and cheaper, and quite enough to satisfy public opinion, which we are told has been so exercised about this matter. It would be enough to ensure that justice is done and is seen to be done.

I think that we would all agree that the Bill must be seen in the context of the warm support and admiration that is felt throughout the House for the long hours, the dangerous and difficult work and the dedication to duty of the police service. I believe that the police service is a vocation. We must be careful that the Bill does not undermine police morale. There is bound to be suspicion, in the service, that it will do so. To ensure that that does not happen we should, perhaps, offer one or two quid pro quos to the service which are more a question of presentation than anything else. For example, a circular on sentencing could be sent to magistrates, bearing in mind some of the fines and derisory sentences, as Sir Robert Mark has called them, that have been handed out for acts of violence against the police.

I would welcome more recognition for the police service in the Honours List. When we compare the recognition that is given to the Armed Services with that which is given to the police service it is clear that the police are very much the Cinderella service when it comes to honours. More public affirmation would be welcome from people in public life—not just from these Benches but from all walks of life of prominence—to demonstrate that we are behind the police, especially in these present difficult times.

I think that we would all agree that there must be some independent element in respect of complaints against the police, but that in no way reduces the high affection and admiration which we feel for the service as a whole.

3.14 p.m.

Mr. John MacGregor (Norfolk, South)

I apologise that I have not been able to be present throughout the debate, but in view of the time I shall be brief. I wish to make only one point which relates to the issue of untimeliness, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mr. Gilmour) referred. I shall refer to public expenditure, an issue which has not yet been sufficiently brought out in the debate.

We all know of the dangers of public expenditure being out of control at present. I happen to be of the school of thought which believes that public expenditure will have to be heavily reined back in the next two years if we are to get the public sector borrowing requirement down and thus, when industrial expansion comes, have enough shift of resources available to enable that expansion to take place without undue inflation. However, one does not necessarily have to be of that school of thought to know that a situation in which public expenditure has grown—large parts of it being unproductive; that is to say, not in the productive sector of the economy—from 45 per cent. 10 years ago to 57 per cent. now is a real danger.

I believe that it is incumbent upon us in this House on each occasion when a measure comes before us to look even more rigorously at the public expenditure implications now than we have done previously. I recognise that we are talking here, if the Government's figures are correct, of only £300,000, which is a very small sum in relation to most other measures involving public expenditure—although I suspect that my right hon.

Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham is right and that that figure will prove to be a considerable underestimate.

We all know, too, how once we have launched a measure there is an inevitable growth in spending contained within it. In addition, in this instance, there is the extra time and extra money involved for the police in operating this procedure. One of the questions that we must ask ourselves is this. However desirable the measure may be in principle—and the Bill's objective is supported on all sides of the House—can we really afford it at present?

I feel sometimes that we should apply only two tests to all legislation over the next two years: first, whether it will assist the productive sector of the economy; secondly, whether it is vitally necessary at the time to pass it through. This Bill satisfies neither test.

As I have listened to the debate I have heard many criticisms which lead me—I am not a specialist in these matters—to wonder whether this is really the right measure, and whether the cumbersome procedure which represents a large part of the expense is necessary, particularly in these moments of critical economic background.

Several Back Benchers on the Government side of the House have said that they felt that the measure was wrong because it would be ineffective, largely because the chief officer would be the chairman of the tribunal. The Home Secretary said that the particularly difficult cases would, he hoped, be rare and at the margin. I think that those were his words.

They were the difficult cases to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) referred, where the tribunal will come to a different conclusion from that of the chief officer. These are the cases in which this procedure is most appropriate, because in all other cases there will be agreement with what the chief officer originally recommended and decided.

Therefore, in the vast majority of cases we are talking about a cosmetic operation, which may do something from the point of view of public confidence but which nevertheless is cosmetic. Therefore, again we must ask ourselves whether we should be introducing such cosmetic measures at such expense.

I believe that it comes down to a question of priorities. I hope that the Undersecretary will say whether it will be possible to make savings elsewhere in the Home Office, where operations of a lower priority are taking place, to provide for this £300,000 so that we do not add an additional burden to public expenditure. Alternatively, I hope that in Committee there will be a rigorous search for cheaper and more effective methods of carrying through the objective that we seek. I believe that the Association of County Councils feels very strongly that this can be achieved through the local police authorities.

In conclusion, therefore, all I want to say is that this is a time at which companies, large and small, throughout the country are having to shelve desirable expenditure plans and are having to cut back on investment and to cut out services which normally they would like to carry out. It is a time when local authorities are being urged by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for the Environment rigorously to cut back on their spending. Yet I believe we all know that there is immense frustration and concern among many local councillors—I fully understand why—about the fact that they are being asked to cut back heavily at a time when we in Parliament are constantly imposing new burdens and responsibilities upon them.

It seems to me that here in Parliament, in the light of the economic situation, we should be adopting the same careful look at everything we are doing. Public expenditure, therefore, should be a more important consideration in all spending plans and in all new legislation than it has been over the last few years.

For that reason, I hope that it will be possible either to make a saving elsewhere or to find a cheaper way of carrying through this procedure.

3.20 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Dr. Shirley Summerskill)

It is clear that during the debate there has been a general welcome from all hon. Members for the establishment of an independent element in the police complaints procedure. It would seem that discussion and disagreement have really centred upon the means by which we can achieve that end.

Hon. Members have differed as to how the Bill should strike a fair balance between the interests involved. Some hon. Members claim that the balance leans too much in the direction of the police and others claim that it leans too much in the direction of the complainant.

Essentially, the Bill stems from the proposition that fairness and balance must be seen to exist and be accepted as operating in the handling of complaints by members of the public against police officers. Where complaints are made by convicted offenders, the fact that some offenders regrettably bring totally unjustified or even malicious complaints against the police does not remove our obligation to ensure that all complaints are properly and impartially investigated

I do not doubt—I am sure most hon. Members will agree—that the police strive to exercise the utmost impartiality in their handling of complaints. Their investigations are thorough and their decisions on the result of those investigations are made with great care. Nevertheless, in giving the police sole responsibility for considering complaints against their members there is always some room for doubt.

As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has emphasised, the introduction of the new scheme in no way implies any general lack of confidence in the police. On the contrary we believe that, on the whole, the present procedure works satisfactorily and fairly. However, as it does not provide for any outside scrutiny of complaints, apart from cases referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions for his advice on the question of criminal proceedings, the public cannot be entirely satisfied that justice is done, as in the great majority of cases it undoubtedly is. This offers a potential source of friction between the police and the public.

The introduction of an independent element into the complaints procedure will work to the advantage of the police by clearly establishing that complaints are dealt with impartially and thoroughly. This in turn should strengthen the confidence of the general public in the police, which is of great importance to the police in their work and which they deservedly enjoy.

I turn to the main points made by the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mr. Gilmour) and by my hon. Friends the Members for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Mikardo) and Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley). It is true that in theory a deputy chief constable could do a deal with an officer against whom a complaint had been made so that charges were brought, the officer pleaded guilty and the case did not go to the Board. However, most hon. Members will agree that this envisages a standard of conduct on the part of a deputy chief constable which is totally unacceptable. The allegation that was made about possible future conduct was, in my view, most unfortunate and should not have been made.

There is, as my right hon. Friend said, a problem where the Board directs that a charge should be brought against the police, although in practice it would be the decision of the deputy and not of the chief officer. If the chief officer believes that he is too involved, he could—this point was made by many hon. Members—invite another chief officer to chair the tribunal and make a recommendation as to punishment. This was the most commonly voiced criticism of the Bill. There is a discretionary power in Clause 9(4) for him to invite another chief officer to chair the tribunal. However, in view of what has been said this afternoon we shall consider ways in which this discretionary power can be brought out more firmly. But we do not believe that a chief officer is incapable of taking an impartial part in the proceedings of a tribunal in the general run of cases, and the question of punishment will be entirely a matter for him.

I come to the points raised by the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham and the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths). We are fully aware that in the course of their duties police officers may be subject to complaints which are not only without substance but plainly malicious in intent. I appreciate the feelings of an officer placed in this position, but they must be balanced against our general concern that nothing should be done to deter those with genuine complaints from bringing them to the attention of the police.

It is already an offence under Section 5(2) of the Criminal Law Act 1967 to cause wasteful employment of police time by making a false report. With the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions, proceedings have occasionally been brought under this section against complainants where allegations against police officers were found on investigation to be malicious.

Under the new scheme it will remain open to the chief officer of the force concerned, once the Board has decided that there are no grounds for disciplinary action, to consider the possibility of proceeding under the 1967 Act, but the decision to proceed must be taken with care as it is necessary to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the complainant knew the allegation to be false and an acquittal might suggest that the original complaint had been fully justified.

We fully recognise, however, that an officer who has been the subject of an unsubstantiated complaint which he considers was made maliciously and libellously will naturally feel aggrieved and may wish to take civil proceedings for defamation against the person concerned. In the past there have been two obstacles to an officer wishing to take this course. First, he would need to obtain a copy of the letter of complaint, but the practice has been that such copies are supplied to the officer only if the complaint has resulted in disciplinary proceedings. Secondly, actions for defamation involve a certain amount of expense, and the existing restrictions on the use of the Police Federation's funds do not permit them to be used to support actions of this kind.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has recently indicated his willingness to remove those obstacles. First, as he said at the end of his announcement on 15th July, he will advise chief Officers that they should supply to the officer concerned, at his request, a copy of the complaint once the case is closed unless, owing to the particular circumstances of the case, it is contrary to the public interest. Secondly, he agrees with the Police Federation proposal for relaxing the present restrictions on the use of police funds in this respect.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for those two assur- ances. Would it not be right to put at least the first of them in the Bill?

Dr. Summerskill

It will certainly be put in Regulations made under the Bill.

I come to the point about delay made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mr. Douglas-Mann) and others. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary recognises that an officer who is the subject of a complaint will naturally wish to know the outcome as soon as is posible consistently with the complaint being thoroughly investigated. For this reason we have been careful to avoid the sort of cumbersome and complex procedures which could in practice lead to delay. Therefore, there has been considerable simplification of the scheme which was announced in outline form in July last year. We think that the scheme as it now stands should not add significantly to the delay in handling complaints, and we expect the Board to be able to deal quickly with all but the exceptional case.

We very much hope that the existence of the Board as a second check will encourage the police to dispose of the more trivial cases without the extensive inquiries which they may at present consider to be necessary. My right hon. Friend will continue to bear in mind the need to ensure that complaints are dealt with and the officers complained of informed of the result as quickly as possible. In this connection I draw attention to his power under Clause I to give the Board general directions on the discharge of its functions.

The hon. Members for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and Cambridge (Mr. Lane) raised the question of the membership of the Board. We accept that to a large degree the success of the new scheme will depend on the ability of the individuals appointed to the Board to command public confidence. This is, therefore, something that we shall have to consider most carefully.

Broadly speaking, the intention is that members—men and women—shall be drawn from various walks of life and reflect as wide as possible a range of different backgrounds and different areas of the country, although they must have in common the important capacity for making balanced and reasoned judgments on the cases which come before them. Of the various spheres from which members might be drawn, experience of legal affairs, administration, the trade unions, social work or personnel management of any kind would be of value, but no single group will have a monopoly of membership. We expect that a number of members will wish to work part-time, and that will make it easier for those with wider interests to combine these with serving on the Board.

As the hon. and learned Member for South Fylde (Mr. Gardner) knows, my right hon. Friend saw a deputation from Justice and discussed the handling of a case in which a person makes a complaint against the police which relates to his conviction for a criminal offence and simultaneously appeals against that conviction to the Court of Appeal. Justice suggested that the police should be advised to proceed with the investigation of the complaint in these circumstances but that suggestion is not without its difficulties.

We have undertaken to consider whether proposals on these lines could work in practice, and how and to whom any relevant information disclosed by the inquiry should be made available for the appeal. As a first step, we shall be asking the Director of Public Prosecutions—who is concerned both with the criminal aspects of complaints and with criminal prosecutions generally—for his views on the proposal. We should also wish to consult other interested bodies about any possible change of practice. I cannot say more at this stage, but I assure the hon. and learned Gentleman that discussions are in progress.

Questions have been asked about the process of making complaints. A complaint does not need to be made in person at a police station, although that might often be the most convenient course. It could be made in writing, either direct to the chief constable or to a Member of Parliament. There will be nothing to prevent complainants addressing their complaints direct to the Board once it is set up. The Board, having no power to investigate complaints, will send them on to the chief officer concerned. However a complaint is made, the complainant must be willing to be interviewed by the senior officer appointed to investigate the matter. The Home Office has already provided an explanatory leaflet "Police and Public", which sets out the procedure for making a complaint against the police. A new edition will be prepared to take into account changes made by the new scheme.

The hon. Member for Cambridge raised once again the important question of police manning. I shall come in a moment to the relationship between the finance needed to implement the Bill and the finance required for manning. In the past 12 months there has been a considerable improvement in the overall strength of the service, which rose from 101,027 on 31st October 1974 to 105,878 on 31st October this year. Recruitment continues, fortunately, at a high level and wastage has recently shown a reduction.

Mr. Lane

Will the hon. Lady confirm that the position in London broadly follows the national trend?

Dr. Summerskill

The Metropolitan Police, almost 21 per cent. below establishment, increased by 270 in the first 10 months of this year.

Mr. Ian Gilmour

Does that figure include the London Airport police? If it does, it is not a real increase.

Dr. Summerskill

No, it does not.

I now come to the question of cost. Many hon. Members have implied that the Bill and its implementation will cost more than we predict. The estimate is £300,000 a year, mostly on salaries, and as an estimate it is relatively modest. Even so, it has been suggested that we cannot afford to increase public expenditure in this way in current circumstances and that £300,000 could be better spent on the needs of the police force itself.

I assure the hon. Member for Cambridge that there is no limit on police expenditure where the strengths of the authorised establishments are being improved. I do not accept that the new proposals are irrelevant to the efficiency of the police. This modest expenditure will be well worth while if it improves still further the public confidence in the police on which so much of their work depends. In this way it can be of direct value to the police.

I am particularly concerned that there should be good relations between the police and the immigrant community. I recognise with regret that this is not always so at present, and that indeed in some areas there is distrust of the police on the part of the immigrant community, although a good deal has been done to promote better relations between them.

We realise that where there is lack of trust it is only too sadly true that incidents may occur which become the subject of formal complaints against the police. Where such distrust exists, it cannot be conductive to complete confidence on the part of the complainant that his complaint will be thoroughly investigated and impartially handled when he realises that the handling of it lies entirely with the police themselves. I hope, therefore, that the establishment of an independent element will enable members of the immigrant community to feel more confident that their complaints will be dealt with fairly and impartially. The Bill will, I hope, make an important contribution in this respect.

Mr. Mikardo

In the light of my hon. Friend's last sentence, will she represent to the Secretary of State the desirability of including at least one immigrant on the Board?

Dr. Summerskill

We shall take that suggestion into account when considering appropriate people to appoint to the Board.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

It would be very acceptable and possibly most useful for an immigrant to be on the Board, but he should be on it not because he is an immigrant but because of his quality, integrity and character.

Dr. Summerskill

I have already outlined the main characteristics we will be seeking in members of the Board. Clearly, we will consider men and women among both immigrants and non-immigrants with those characteristics.

I hope that what I have said will have helped to clarify the thinking behind some of the provisions to which special attention has been drawn in the debate. There is always room for argument about the precise means to be used to achieve a given end, even when there is agreement on the desirability of the end itself, and the argument will continue, I am sure, in Committee.

The Bill is the fruit of long debate on the principles which should govern the introduction of an independent element into the handling of complaints by members of the public against the police, and in its present form it is also the result of very detailed consultations with those most concerned—the police and the police authorities. I am satisfied that the scheme provided by the Bill will do a great deal to allay concern about the way in which complaints are handled and that the Bill, by strengthening public confidence in the police, will give them added support in their vital tasks.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40(Committal of Bills).