HC Deb 27 March 1975 vol 889 cc743-54

2.11 p.m.

Mr. Ian Mikardo (Bethnal Green and Bow)

Some time ago in an Adjournment debate I raised the case of a then constituent of mine who was arrested late one night in my constituency, taken to a police station and there beaten up by six police officers. Not unnaturally he complained about this treatment, and as a result a regular, normal police inquiry was held by policemen into the behaviour of the police. The investigating officer completely exonerated the police officers concerned.

However, my constituent was bright enough to find a way to get an independent inquiry, by suing the officers concerned. The matter came to court, where on investigation—and, I stress, an independent investigation—it was found that the offences had taken place, and my constituent was awarded a substantial sum in damages against all the officers. It is of interest that even after it had been demonstrated that the officers committed the offence and that they had lied to the investigating officer, no disciplinary or other action was taken against any of them.

I drew the attention of the House to that case at the time as an illustration of the need to bring an independent element, outside the police, into inquiries arising out of complaints about police behaviour. The behaviour of the Essex police towards George Henry Ince strongly reinforces that case. It also sheds some light on the question why some—not all—chief constables and chief officers are still fighting for the right of the police to continue to be exclusively judges in their own cause and in carrying out their investigations under a cloak of secrecy.

When shall we get the final proposals, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been promising us for some time, on the introduction of an independent element into inquiries about police behaviour? The matter has been hanging around for a considerable time.

I shall briefly recapitulate the Ince story. As the House will recall, George Henry Ince was arrested for the murder of Mrs. Patience. The police built up against him a formidable case, one which was absolutely unanswerable and cast iron. The only thing that was wrong with it was that it was wrong, that it identified as a guilty party a man who was not guilty. However, on paper it was a most formidable case. The police relied heavily on evidence of identification which they compiled by methods which can only be described—even if one wants to be charitable—as highly dubious and highly suspect. They used methods which were later resoundingly exposed in a book written by two highly reputable journalists. I should have thought that after the exposure in that book no jury would ever again convict on evidence of identification alone, because it showed that the procedures of identification, which are being reviewed again, at a leisurely pace, are at best the most inexact of inexact sciences.

George Henry Ince escaped conviction for the murder of Mrs. Patience almost by a miracle. Somebody else was later tried and found guilty of the murder. After that Mr. Ince made a series of specific complaints about the behaviour of the Essex Constabulary. The Director of Public Prosecutions considered them and decided that criminal proceedings against any of the officers concerned with those complaints were not justified. I am not a lawyer and I would not dream of challenging the Director's findings, but when I read the list of offences which have now been admitted by the Chief Constable as having been carried out by his officers I begin to wonder whether the same standards are being applied to police malefactors as to all other malefactors.

I shall quote from a long list only five examples. The first concerns the fated identification. On this subject the Minister of State, Home Office, Lord Harris, wrote to me saying: Mr. Ince's photograph was in fact first shown to Miss Patience"— she was one of the principal witnesses— as one of twelve, on 10th November. Subsequently, however, both she and her father and brother were shown single photographs of Mr. Ince, which was wholly contrary to force instructions. Miss Patience had seen six single photographs of him in the nine days before she came face to face with him at Colchester and identified him. There were also breaches of force instructions when sets of photographs including one of Mr. Ince were shown to Mr. Robert and Mr. David Patience: after they had failed to pick him out from the set as a whole, his photograph was specifically drawn to their attention. If anybody but the police behaved in that sort of way what would be said? However, the Director says "There ain't anything wrong with that in law."

The second example is that the Chief Constable himself admits that his officers failed to inquire into Ince's alibi. At his second trial he managed to bring forward an unshakable alibi and unshakable evidence to prove that he was nowhere near the scene of the crime when it occurred. That evidence had been given to the police, and they failed to check it. The Chief Constable says that they failed to check it. One begins to wonder whether they look upon it as their function to get a conviction at all costs of the chap they pick on or to try to find out the truth, to find out what really happened.

Thirdly, there was another identification parade. In respect of this Lord Harris said: Commander Howells"— the investigating officer— has been unable to ascertain with any certainty exactly what happened at every stage of this parade; this in itself is a criticism of the police officers present and of Chief Inspector Gorham, the officer in charge of the parade. There were a chief inspector and other officers present, but none of them was able to tell the investigating officer what really happened.

Lord Harris continues: It is clear, however, that on at least two occasions the officer in the case—who, if present at all, should have been there merely as an observer—interfered with the conduct of the parade. Nothing could be clearer evidence that the officers concerned were determined to get the result they wanted out of the parade.

Fourthly, it is not contested that the police introduced forensic evidence—examples of fibre—without any attempt to check its authenticity.

Finally, photographs of Ince were taken without his knowledge or approval at Bethnal Green police station in my constituency. He did not know that they were being taken secretly. Lord Harris admits: the handing over of these photographs to the Essex police was a clear breach of Metropolitan police instructions. It is obvious from all this that the police did not see it as their duty to arrive at the truth. That is what I thought that they were there for, to do their best to help the court to find the truth of the matter. They were out to get a conviction by fair means or foul, whether justified or not.

After all that condemnation by an investigating officer, the greater part of which has been accepted as valid by the Chief Constable, the Chief Constable took disciplinary action against only one of the officers. The officers have got off both judicial action initiated by the Director of Public Prosecutions and disciplinary action. The Chief Constable puts forward a fantastic reason. He says in effect" I shall not take disciplinary action against them now, if only because it is so long since the offences were committed."

On that I make two points. First, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if you or I had committed a breach of the law two or three years ago I am sure that we would not escape being dealt with for it just because it occurred two or three years ago and not two or three weeks ago.

The second point is even weightier. The timing lies in the hands of the police. They postponed bringing in the investigating officer. I do not complain of that. There may be good reasons. When the investigating officer came in, he took a long time. Again I make no complaint, because he was probably doing his job properly.

Before anything else was done, the matter went to the Director of Public Prosecutions, who also took a long time. I make no complaint. Perhaps he was doing his job properly. But now, because they all took a long time, starting with the police, the police say that they cannot do anything about it because it is a long time since it happened. That is ingenious. All that has to be done about such complaints is to dawdle over the investigation process, and then no action is taken against the offender. They create the delay, and then profit by it.

In the end, the Essex Police got a conviction against Mr. Ince on a different charge concerned with an attack on a bullion van. There has been an inquiry into the handling of that case as well by the police. It is known that at least one serious criminal offence was committed by one or more police officers. That has been investigated, and the report of the investigating officer has gone to the Director of Public Prosecutions, who has been sitting on the papers for three or four months. In the end, the offending police officers will no doubt escape disciplinary action on the grounds that such a long time has elapsed since they committed their offence.

I do not envy my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary her task in replying to my speech, because she is on a very bad wicket. I regret that she should be put in that position. I have one direct and serious question to put to her about the bullion case. Anthony William Evans was the man driving the van. He was therefore in the best possible position, much better than anyone else, to identify those who attacked it. He was interviewed by the police, shown photographs and taken on two identification parades. At the end of that process he was positive that the accused men were not those whom he had seen attacking the van. It was, so to speak, a positive negative identification. He said positively "These are not the chaps."

Why was that man not called to give evidence? We can be sure that if he had said "I identify these people as the chaps who attacked me" he would have been a star witness, witness No. 1. What sort of evenhanded justice is it that a witness who gives evidence of culpability is called and a witness who gives evidence of non-culpability is not brought into the process? Would it not be right for the whole case to be reviewed in the light of that evidence, which was not available to those who heard the case at the trial?

My hon. Friend's predecessor, the then Minister of State, wrote to me on 27th November 1973 saying: it may be that the proposed remedy for Mr. Ince's complaints would be civil proceedings against the police in a court of law. It was kind of the then Minister to offer that advice. Mr. Ince has taken it. But in recent weeks all his mail, including correspondence with his solicitor about the action he is taking on the then Minister's advice, has been withheld from him. When inquiries were made of the governor of the prison, it transpired that the governor had been instructed to send Mr. Ince's mail to the Home Office instead of letting Mr. Ince have it. I believe that after complaints that matter has been put right. But what was the authority for it? What was the reason for it? Why did a prisoner in correspondence with his solicitor, on a Minister's advice, have his correspondence with his solicitor withheld from him? Above all, will my hon. Friend give me an assurance that that will not happen again?

There are many disturbing elements in the case, so disturbing that it must remain open to question, no matter what the court found, whether Mr. Ince has been rightly convicted. There are certainly matters which suggest that we should introduce as quickly as possible an independent element into inquiries concerning the police.

Mutual confidence between public and police and trust by the public in their police force are essential in a country such as ours. That trust and that confidence are greatly damaged by behaviour of the kind I have described. I hope that my hon. Friend and her Department will move soon to put right these manifest defects.

2.30 p.m.

Mr. David Weitzman (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

I should like to intervene for a few moments to emphasise the powerful case made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Mikardo).

My hon. Friend quoted this glaring example of the danger of any desire to obtain a conviction on the use of identity—namely, identification parades and the use of photographs in the way my hon. Friend outlined. The Home Office should go into the matter very carefully to see whether the methods used in identification processes need to be tightened considerably.

We have recently heard criticisms made by a judge about methods adopted by counsel in cross-examining the police and making allegations against the police founded on their clients' view of what happened. It has been suggested that counsel should not take that course. This is an example of how important it is for counsel in taking up a case on behalf of a client—criminal though he may be—to be empowered to cross—examine even the police about their methods and their evidence. The case of Mr. Ince illustrates how evidence is, I shall not say manufactured, but put forward by the police and is very much open to question. I take this opportunity of replying to that criticism which has been made of counsel because I believe that it is most important that they should carry out their duties fearlessly on behalf of their clients.

2.32 p.m.

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

I fully understand why my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Mikardo) welcomes this opportunity to raise the question of police action in respect of Mr. George Ince. I know that it is a case in which my hon. Friend has taken a sustained interest and I appreciate the concern which he feels over the way in which it has been handled.

My noble Friend Lord Harris wrote to my hon. Friend on 29th January and set out in some detail the results of the investigation carried out by Commander Howells of the Metropolitan Police into Mr. Ince's allegations about police conduct leading up to his two trials for the murder of Mrs. Muriel Patience. This investigation had included a detailed review of the inquiries conducted by the Essex police into Mrs. Patience's death, in the light of Mr. Ince's contention that the officers engaged in that inquiry had assumed his guilt from the outset and had acted entirely on that assumption. Commander Howells' investigation had also covered several separate and more specific matters of complaint, to which I shall come later in my speech.

On the main issue raised by Mr. Ince about the conduct of the inquiries into Mrs. Patience's murder, it is clear that there is substance in his criticism of the course pursued by the police. In particular, the Chief Constable of Essex accepts that there was a failure by his officers to inquire thoroughly into the alibi which Mr. Ince had put forward. There are also grounds for criticism in the use made of photographs of Mr. Ince to obtain evidence of identification from members of the Patience family. Photographs are in some circumstances a necessary aid to the identification of criminals, but their use for this purpose needs to be subject to stringent safeguards if the witness is to give an unbiased answer. These safeguards are set out in Home Office guidance to the police and reproduced in the standing instructions of the Essex force, but I regret to say that in Mr. Ince's case these instructions were contravened or disregarded.

The seriousness of the faults in the conduct of these inquiries is underlined by the fact that after Mr. Ince's eventual acquittal another man was subsequently tried and convicted for the murder of which he had been accused. In forming a judgment on this matter, however, the House should know that the Director of Public Prosecutions, to whom Commander Howells' report was referred, expressed the view that there was nothing to suggest any improper or prejudicial motive underlying the actions of the officers concerned. The course that they had followed in showing photographs to Mrs. Patience's family was brought out fully in the court proceedings.

I should like to turn to the more specific complaints made by my hon. Friend on Mr. Ince's behalf. He spoke of police witnesses committing perjury and complained of photographs—photographs which had been taken previously without his knowledge—having been shown to witnesses.

Before I deal with these specific points, I should like to explain that any delay in the investigation was due to the fact that investigations had to wait until the final murder trial was completed. The complex and detailed investigations took some months to complete. A report was then sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions, and the Chief Constable considered disciplinary proceedings. There were various stages in the investigation.

The complaint about perjury refers to an allegation against Chief Inspector Gorham, the officer in charge of the identification parade held at Colchester on 27th November 1972. Mr. Robert Patience identified another man—not Ince—but subsequently said that he should have picked out a man in a green shirt. The colour of the shirt worn by Ince therefore became an issue at his subsequent trials.

When Ince entered the room where the parade was to be held, he found that he was the only man wearing a white shirt. He changed shirts with his solicitor, who was wearing a beige shirt. At some later stage, Commander Howells accepts, he changed shirts with another man in the parade, into a green shirt. In a statement for the committal proceedings Chief Inspector Gorham said in effect that Ince did not change into a green shirt until some time after Mr. Patience had left the parade. Subsequently in the two trials he identified three changes of shirt and said, in effect, that Ince was wearing a green shirt when Mr. Patience looked at the men paraded. It is on this difference in evidence that the allegation of perjury is based.

Commander Howells was unable to establish exactly what did happen during the parade. This in itself is a criticism of the officer in charge, Chief Inspector Gorham, and other officers present. He regards as proved that Ince and his solicitor changed shirts before the parade began, that Ince at some stage changed into a green shirt and that there were only these two changes. The Director of Public Prosecutions found, after seeing Commander Howells' report, that there was insufficient evidence on which to base criminal proceedings against any of the officers concerned in the murder inquiries.

I wish now to deal with the point about the taking of photographs without Ince's knowledge. The relevant photographs were taken at Bethnal Green Police Station on 3rd February 1972 without Ince's knowledge or consent. They were taken to provide an up-to-date record of his appearance solely for internal police purposes. They were later supplied to Essex police in connection with the bullion robbery investigation and used by them to show to witnesses in the barn murder case. Three of the photographs were exhibited at the two murder trials of Mr. Ince. The use made of the photographs by Essex police was in clear breach of the understanding on which they were made available. The Commissioner has since taken steps to tighten up the arrangements in such cases. The then Attorney-General confirmed in 1970, in another connection, that the police commit no actionable wrong if police officers photograph a person without the use of force but without his consent while he is in custody.

I come now to the result of the investigation into these various matters of complaint. The investigating officer's report was forwarded by the Chief Constable of Essex to the Director of Public Prosecutions, who decided that there was insufficient evidence to justify criminal proceedings against any of the officers concerned. The Chief Constable then gave consideration to the possibility of disciplinary proceedings.

I remind the House that the possibility of disciplinary proceedings is essentially a matter for the Chief Constable and that under existing law the Secretary of State has no power to intervene.

Last November the Chief Constable had transferred the officer in charge of the police inquiries into the murder to another post. He subsequently decided that no further action was called for, by way of disciplinary proceedings, against any of the officers concerned. In coming to this decision he took into account the fact that the officers concerned had been under a cloud for some time; the serious consequences, both financially and otherwise, to the officer in charge of his transfer to another post; and the fact that the offences with which the other officers might have been charged were mainly breaches of administrative directions, for which they were admonished. The Chief Constable offered Mr. Ince an apology for the conduct on the part of his officers which gave Mr. Ince and his family cause for complaint, and offered to arrange for the Deputy Chief Constable to visit Mr. Ince to explain his decisions more fully. I understand that Mr. Ince has declined this offer.

As the law stands, the decision whether criminal prosecutions should follow from a complaint against the police rests with the Director of Public Prosecutions. The decision whether there should be disciplinary proceedings rests with the chief officer of the police force concerned. Neither of these is a question in which the Home Office has power to intervene or would be competent to intervene. I know that chief officers discharge this responsibility most conscientiously, and that in this particular case the Chief Constable of Essex gave long and careful thought to what his decision should be. At the same time, however, I am aware of the view held by my hon. Friend, and now, I think, widely accepted in the House, that the final decision in a matter of this sort should not be taken within the police service itself.

As my hon. Friend has pointed out, my right hon. Friend made clear his firm intention of bringing forward legislation which will introduce into the procedure, at the stage when a decision for or against disciplinary action is taken, an independent element with power to influence the outcome. Consultations with the police representative bodies and local authority associations are well advanced and legis- lation will be introduced at the earliest possible opportunity.

To revert to the case of Mr. Ince, after his acquittal he remained in police custody, and was charged in connection with a bullion robbery at Mountnessing, Essex. He was convicted on 29th November 1973, and was sentenced on the following day to 15 years' imprisonment. I understand that an application which he made to the Criminal Division of the Court of Appeal for leave to appeal to that court has been refused by a single judge. However, the period during which he may renew his application before the full court has not yet expired. This means that the case is therefore sub judice, and it would be quite inappropriate for me to comment at this time. But my noble Friend is aware of a point which my hon. Friend has put to him and will be aware of the points made in a debate today about this case, and, when he is able to do so, he will write to him.

Mr. Mikardo

While thanking my hon. Friend for her careful and courteous reply, may I ask whether she will deal with the point I made about the stopping of Mr. Ince's mail, especially mail from his solicitor, which he will need because of the very points my hon. Friend made at the end of her speech?

Dr. Summerskill

I shall look into that point raised by my hon. Friend and write to him about it.

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