HC Deb 28 July 1976 vol 916 cc808-18

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

11.1 p.m.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury)

I am in some difficulty in this debate because apparently there is no Minister here to reply to it. Perhaps I could therefore seek your guidance, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

There is an answer to that question that I need not provide since I see that the Minister has just arrived.

Mr. McNair-Wilson

I am grateful for this opportunity to discuss the subject of police disciplinary offences. I would start by expressing my admiration for the police in the difficult role they have to fulfil in our society. Their's is a role and a duty which has become more difficult and dangerous as crime figures have soared and as criminals have resorted to the use of violence, both in terms of weapons and in terms of assault upon persons. In turn this has forced the police to modify the ways in which they deal with the problems of crime in our society.

Indeed, it is remarkable that they have been able to modify their approach while at the same time maintaining the respect and the co-operation of the general public to the extent that we all still consider that the policeman, wherever we may see him, is essentially our friend. Of course, as I said, the type of criminal the police have to deal with is not only more violent but in some cases more ruthless and more unscrupulous than those of a previous generation. The question of scruple comes into play in particular in the way in which those criminals when they appear before the courts are dealt with by the courts.

Many top policemen—at the moment I have in mind Sir Robert Mark in particular—feel that the proceedings of the courts are such as to give the criminal undue—unreasonable, shall we say—licence and therefore often to avoid the sentences which Sir Robert Mark feels are justly their due. It comes to a question whether the courts are tilted overmuch in favour of the villian.

It follows that if someone as distinguished as Sir Robert Mark makes those comments, he is undoubtedly reflecting the views held by policemen below him and of the constabularies of our country. From that it probably follows that policemen, if they feel that the courts are not giving them the crack of the whip that they feel their deserve, might look for opportunities of remedying the balance by the way in which they act before a person is charged, before the suspect comes within the rules of custody.

On 5th July as reported in The Guardian, Lord Justice Lawson summed up the position in these words: The phrase 'a man is helping police with their inquiries' is a polite euphemism for 'a man is being held illegally while the police decide whether they have enough evidence to justify a charge'. The article, by Mr. Michael Zander, went on to say: The judge warned the police that they had no right to keep people simply for questioning. They must either arrest somebody or not. If a subject was not under arrest he was free to go. Mr. Zander then summed up the judge's remarks in these words: If this is right, a suspect must be charged as soon as he is taken into custody—often before the police know whether there is enough evidence against him. Moreover under the Judges' Rules when charged, questioning is supposed to stop. In fact, Mr. K. W. Lidstone, Lecturer in Law, University of Sheffield, touched on the same point in the Criminal Law Review of November 1975, when he wrote: The attitude of the police seems to be that one can take liberties and providing they do so in a proper case the courts will support them. We then have a creeping tide of common law which gradually erodes the liberties of the individual. If the courts were to adopt a harder line it would no doubt mean that the task of the police becomes harder. Few civil libertarians would want that. However, it would make Parliament take up the responsibilities society places on it. I want to talk about some of these responsibilities in the light of a case which affects a constituent of mine, Mr. George Montgomery, a stable lad in a training establishment in Lamboum. But before I do that, I want to quote again from Mr. Michael Zander, because on this most important point he says: For years the police have been breaking the rules more or less openly—sometimes holding suspects incommunicado for days before either charging them or allowing them to go". So my first question to the Minister is who decides when breaches of the rules in terms of charging are such as to require disciplinary action.

Returning to my constituent's case—Mr. Montgomery was under suspicion as long ago as 1971 for doping horses at Haydock Park because he had overlooked some duties relating to a horse for which he was responsible and had decided to put the matter right by visiting the horse in the early hours of the morning—20th August—to see that it had the provision he should have given it earlier.

At roughly that time the Merseyside Police had the responsibility for investigating the doping of horses and they found out that Mr. Montgomery had visited the horse in the early morning. They wondered, perhaps not unnaturally, why a stable lad should visit a horse in the early hours of the morning. They came to the conclusion he was nobbling the horse. So on 31st October 1971 they went to see Mr. Montgomery.

At about lunch time they started their investigation and inquiry. They questioned him throughout the afternoon and evening and decided that there was a prima facie case against him. They charged him at Epsom police station and took him north to Liverpool. During the journey they continued with their ruthless and rigorous cross-examination. That cross-examination was to continue until 3.30 the following morning, and it ended 12 hours or more later when Mr. Montgomery was punched, struck on the cheek and hit on the mouth. Having taken that action against him and having failed totally to make him change his statements of innocence, they then apologised and the following morning returned him to his father's house in Liverpool.

To quote his father, George Montgomery returned home in a state of shock, incoherent, with his mouth bruised and puffed up. One may say that if Montgomery had broken down that would have been reason enough for the police to have made that assault. But he did not break down. In a subsequent civil action against the police Montgomery was awarded £2,500 in respect of the treatment he had received in the course of the inquiry. But Mr. Montgomery did not have to wait for the end of his action for that settlement because four days after it had started counsel for the police advised them that it was better to offer him a settlement and finish the case.

So the situation arose in which my constituent Mr. George Montgomery was charged, cross-examined ruthlessly for hours, was struck, and received damages from the police for the injuries he suffered from two police officers. Yet although one might say that these police officers deserved disciplinary action to be taken against them, no such action is to be taken. Earlier in my speech I said that according to the Judges' Rules once a person is charged the questioning ends. But in Mr. Montgomery's case it did not and he had to suffer assault.

It is conceivable that I should not have known about the case because it happened in 1971 and I have represented Newbury only since 1974. That might have been the case but for the Stable Lads Welfare Trust, and in particular Mr. Alfred Sherman who was so concerned about the case that he brought it to my attention and I took it up with the Home Office. I had considerable correspondence with the Minister of State, Lord Harris of Greenwich.

I might have let the matter lapse after one or two of his letters, but on 18th June this year I received a letter in which Lord Harris described why the police had not taken disciplinary action in the matter and why the Home Office felt unable to intervene. The letter contained the following paragraph, and it was because of this paragraph that I sought tonight's Adjournment debate. It reads Prior to the trial an undertaking was given that notwithstanding the outcome of the civil action, no disciplinary proceedings would be contemplated against any member of the Merseyside Police joined in the action. In effect, whether Montgomery had won his case or not, the police would get off scot free, that is, the two police officers who assaulted him and any other policemen who might have been involved.

Tonight I ask the Minister whether she will tell me how it is possible for police officers to assault an innocent man and yet escape any form of disciplinary proceedings. The Minister will know that the chief constable who made the decision that no disciplinary proceedings should take place, was Mr. James Haughton, now Sir James Haughton, Chief Inspector of Constabulary, and that he has never offered any reason in public why no disciplinary action was taken against those officers.

I suggest to the Minister that, even though I have strong views about the police and the service they give, it can do nothing for public confidence if any one of us can feel that we, like Mr. Montgomery, might be subjected to cross-examination and assault, even though we are innocent. I therefore ask the Minister whether the then Chief Constable of Merseyside, Mr. James Haughton as he was, told the Home Office why he felt that no disciplinary proceedings should be taken against the officers, or whether the Home Office, having heard about the case, asked the Chief Constable for his reasons. I do not think that my concern or that of anyone else interested in the subject of police powers and civil liberties can be satisfied when an innocent man can be punched and hit by police officers without there being rather more explanation than the present Chief Constable of Merseyside—who I think was Sir James's assistant—gave in a statement which said there were good reasons for it". When asked by The Sunday Times what the reasons were he refused to say.

11.17 p.m.

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

I join in the initial remarks of the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) and praise the work of the police. The answer to the specific question he asked will emerge as I deal with his other points. On the general subject of the handling of police disciplinary cases, the hon. Member has related his remarks largely to a case concerning police inquiries involving a stable lad, his constituent, Mr. Montgomery.

The case as a whole spans a period of time from the point at which the inquiries involved Mr. Montgomery to the time at which a civil action brought on his behalf was settled out of court. That is a period of no less than four years. That might help to put the time span in perspective. This has been a particularly long case. During that period, because of changes in police areas consequent upon local government reorganisation, police responsibility for the case passed from the Lancashire Constabulary and the Lancashire Police Authority to the Merseyside police and the police authority for that force.

There are general considerations and statutory provisions which are essential and relevant factors to be borne in mind when formulating any conclusions about the outcome of the case. I shall briefly state those considerations, which will provide the answer to the specific question asked by the hon. Member. First, the chief officer of police concerned is entirely responsible for the investigation of alleged criminal offences and for the disciplinary control of his force. Parliament has approved a discipline code for police officers and discipline regulations which lay down procedures for handling discipline offences and the punishments that may be awarded by the chief officer if he finds that there has been a disciplinary offence.

There is the power of appeal to the Home Secretary against the chief officer's decision in any disciplinary proceedings. This is the only situation in which the Home Secretary might be concerned in any individual disciplinary case. Similarly it is for the chief officer, and only for him, to decide who should be promoted in his force.

As the House is aware, the chief officer is also responsible under the Police Act 1964 for the investigation of complaints by members of the public against officers of his force. Most often, the recording and investigation of a complaint will ordinarily follow within a short time of the receipt of the complaint, though, as the House knows from the recent debates on the Police Bill, there are circumstances in which this may not always be feasible or desirable.

One such circumstance is where there are related civil proceedings. If a complainant indicates that he is minded to institute civil proceedings in respect of the matter he has complained of, there are obviously difficulties in the way of the police conducting a full investigation of the complaint in accordance with the usual procedures under the Police Act and the discipline regulations, the first step in which is normally for the investigating officer to interview the complainant to obtain full and precise details of his complaint, and similarly, to interview the complainant's witnesses, if there are any.

The chief officer concerned is also liable in respect of alleged torts committed by his officers, and, in addition, Section 48 of the Police Act 1964 empowers the appropriate police authority to pay the costs incurred by an officer in such proceedings and not recovered by him in the proceedings, to such extent as it may think fit. Further, the police authority is similarly empowered to pay any damages and costs awarded against the officer in such proceedings.

In conclusion to my general remarks in respect of all these matter, the responsibility rests wholly with the chief officer and—as indicated in regard to costs in civil proceedings—with the police authority. These are not matters in which the Home Secretary has any power to intervene.

I turn now to the inquiry which gave rise to the incident which resulted ultimately in the out-of-court settlement last October of the action brought by Mr. Montgomery.

The hon. Gentleman knows full well the sequence of events of this long case. Writs were eventually received by the clerk to the Lancashire police authority on 2nd May 1972, and were later served on the two officers. The writs alleged wrongful arrest, false imprisonment and assault and battery at Epsom and in Lancashire. The officers denied the allegations of assault and the police authority, following representations by the officers' legal representatives, and in the light of all the relevant evidence available, decided that the officers should be financially supported in their defence to the action, and indemnified against any damages and costs that might be awarded against them.

This is not of course in any way remarkable. It was a decision in accordance with the provisions of Section 48 of the Police Act 1964, and such indemnities in civil actions against police officers are not uncommon. The indemnity was subsequently confirmed by the Merseyside police authority after the officers' transfer to its force on local government reorganisation on 1st April 1974.

Before the hearing of the civil action, as a result of a further request by the officers' legal representatives, the Chief Constable also gave an undertaking that no disciplinary proceedings would be contemplated against any member of the force who might be joined in the action. We understand that the view was taken by the Chief Constable that, in view of the decision of the respective police authorities to indemnify the officers against costs and damages and considering the long passage of time since the incident occurred—some four years—it would be invidious to subject the officers to formal disciplinary action.

As I have said, these were the considered decisions of the responsible authorities. They were decisions which they were legitimately entitled to make and as regards in particular the undertaking relating to disciplinary proceedings, a decision which in the light of all the circumstances and the sequence and timing of events the Chief Constable considered could be validly justified.

The hon. Member has made the point that there was no formal investigation of a complaint of alleged assault on Mr Montgomery whilst in police custody. Here, however, it is relevant to remember that when any complaint of this nature first came to the notice of the police, Mr. Sirrett's solicitors said that it was not desired that Mr. Montgomery should be interviewed. Mr. Sirrett's purpose was to obtain an apology; and this was given. The investigating officer was not aware of Mr. Montgomery's whereabouts, and within a relatively short time events took a different turn in the shape of the infor- mation from other solicitors instructed on Mr. Montgomery's behalf that civil proceedings were being instituted.

The situation as it appeared then therefore was that Mr. Montgomery had not pursued a complaint under Section 49 of the Police Act 1964; nor did he bring criminal proceedings against the police in respect of an alleged assault. He had evidently decided instead, as he was perfectly entitled to do, to pursue a civil remedy through the courts.

In the event, the civil action went ahead and was concluded in October 1975, when by consent the action was withdrawn on terms which included payment to the defendant by the police authorities of £2,500 and his costs. The terms of the settlement were explicit in that for their part the defendants recognised that at all times the plaintiff, Mr. Montgomery, was wholly innocent and never involved in any offence. They were at the same time also explicit in that for his part the plaintiff accepted that at the time the police inquiries were initiated the information in the hands of the police required thorough investigation both in the interests of the public and of horse racing generally. Further, it should be noted that the agreed terms of the settlement entailed no admission by the police of his allegations of assault: in essence the sum paid was in respect of inconvenience suffered by the plaintiff in the course of the said inquiry.

I accept that the Chief Constable's undertaking to the officers that there would be no disciplinary proceedings was unusual. This was said plainly in the full reply which was sent by my noble Friend the Minister of State.

It was, of course, as the hon. Member knows, a decision entirely within the discretion of the Chief Constable who alone is responsible for the disciplinary control of his force: it is final and not now open to review. However, I think it will be clear to the House from what I have said about the facts and sequence of events in this case that is was an unusual case. The Chief Constable was no doubt confronted with a situation in which he had to make a difficult decision.

As I have said, in view of the decision of the respective police authorities to indemnify the officers against damages and costs, and considering the long passage of time—over four years—since the original incident, the Chief Constable took the view that it would be invidious at the end of the day to initiate disciplinary proceedings. That was his decision, legitimately made after full consideration.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Eleven o'clock.