HC Deb 12 December 1977 vol 941 cc232-44

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

1.3 a.m.

Mr. Giles Radice (Chester-le-Street)

I am sad to have to raise the case of Liddle Towers on the Adjournment of the House. The brief outlines of the case are as follows. My constituent, Liddle Towers, was a 39-years-old electrician. He had no previous criminal record for acts of violence. Indeed, apart from motoring offences the only criminal record was for the theft of £3 worth of scrap metal.

He died on 9th February 1976 at Dry, burn Hospital, Co. Durham, from injuries received at the hands of the police during the night of 15th-16th January. Towers was arrested outside the Key Club at Birtley, in my constituency, at 12.45 a.m on 16th January, by PC Goodner. After a struggle he was put into a dog van by six policemen and taken to Gateshead police station. Later, at 4 am, he was taken from the station to Queen Elizabeth Hospital because he complained of not feeling well, and, after an examination which apparently revealed no injury and nothing wrong with him, he was taken back to the cells. He was discharged later that same morning at 10 o'clock.

Both the taxi driver who took Towers home and his local GP, Dr. Powney, who saw him later that day at 2 o'clock, gave evidence that was consistent with Towers' own account of having been assaulted in the cells. Towers told his friend: They gave us a bloody good kicking outside the Key Club, but that was now to what I got when I got inside. That was hearsay evidence, of course, which was not admissible at the inquest.

On 8th October 1976, an inquest on Towers returned a verdict of "justifiable homicide". That was a very strange verdict. Taken literally, it would mean that the police intended to kill Liddle Towers and were justified in so doing.

On 3rd May 1977, the Attorney-General, in answer to a Written Question from me, said that the DPP had decided that the evidence was not such as to justify the institution of criminal proceedings against any officer. Later, on 8th July, the Home Secretary refused to set up an inquiry under Section 32 of the 1964 Police Act. Tonight, I am asking my right hon. Friend to reconsider his decision.

The case for a Section 32 inquiry is as follows. I believe that there should be an inquiry because there is considerable disquiet over the Liddle Towers affair, and concern over this affair is now threatening to bring the Northumbria police into disrepute in a more general way.

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

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that the attempt in some quarters to widen the criticism of the Northumbria police far beyond this case is very undesirable but that it is to some extent promoted by the feeling that the Home Office is refusing an inquiry because the one narrow case is all that is involved. Does not it strengthen the case for getting this one cleared up?

Mr. Radice

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The case has been mentioned frequently in the Press since I met the Home Secretary with a deputation. There was a feature in the Sunday Mirror on 23rd October. There was a half-hour documentary on Tyne-Tees Television on 31st October. On 14th November there was a half-page article in The Guardian. On 15th November there was an editorial in The Guardian calling for an inquiry into "the case that won't die". On 18th November there was a "Nationwide" film on television. On 20th November there was an article in The Sunday Times. On 28th November there was a "World in Action" programme. As the hon. Gentleman said, the "World in Action" programme, The Guardian article of 3rd November and the Sunday Mirror article all featured other cases of alleged police brutality—other cases, that is, apart from that of Liddle Towers.

I have no means of knowing whether these cases are true or false, and I have no intention of raising them in this debate, but I point out that this more general concern has arisen from the widespread feeling that justice has not been done, and certainly has not been seen to be done, in the case of Liddle Towers. So, in a real sense, diquiet over this case has begun to reflect general public confidence in the Northumbria police force.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

How much Press publicity has there been of the 285 assaults on the police in Northumbria up to November of this year? There have been 285 cases, but very little publicity.

Mr. Radice

There was not a great deal, but now there is Press publicity in any case of police brutality. This makes the point about Liddle Towers—that the concern is now spilling over into general concern about the Northumbria police as a whole, which is very undesirable.

An inquiry is being pressed for by many local organisations, including political parties, trade unions, the Northumbria branch of the National Association of Probation Officers and the Liddle Towers Committee, chaired by a local magistrate, Mr. Bell. In addition, the solicitor acting on behalf of the Police Federation in the case said, on the Tyne-Tees Television programme of 31st October, that there was a case for a Section 32 inquiry. More than 50 Members representing a wide spectrum of opinion in the House have also backed the idea of an inquiry.

My second reason for asking for an inquiry is that it is the best means of establishing all the circumstances surrounding the behaviour of the police that night. As for a fresh inquest, the Broderick Committee concluded in 1971 that inquests were not suited to situations in which homicide is or may be alleged. Certainly, at another inquest the Towers family would not be entitled to have a prior view of witnesses' statements, to call evidence, to address the jury, or to have full rights of cross-examination, while the police concerned need not give evidence.

Civil action is inappropriate, because Mrs. Towers has said that she does not want damages but wants only to see justice done. Given the DPP's decision not to prosecute, a private prosecution must be unrealistic. In any case, it is unfair to put the onus on the family.

My own view, and that of other Members and legal experts, including experts on the Liddle Towers Committee, is that the only way to establish what happened is a Section 32 inquiry. The main argument of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary against such an inquiry, used notably in his letter to my right hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bottomley), is that it would offend against the principle of no double jeopardy. I have sent counsel's opinion to my right hon. Friend. Counsel takes the view that my right hon. Friend is incorrectly equating a Section 32 inquiry with possible action under Section 11 of the 1976 Act. That section and the Home Office guidance to chief officers of police establish that a police officer should not be liable to be proceeded against for an alleged disciplinary offence for which the evidence to be brought against him should be in substance that which had been held insufficient to justify a criminal prosecution. That does not refer to a Section 32 inquiry, which is concerned with finding out what has happened and not with disciplinary proceedings or punishment.

In any case, as the DPP has decided not to prosecute, the police officers are protected from disciplinary action. I am also advised that it would be perfectly possible to grant the officers immunity from prosecution or disciplinary action, in which case the problem of double jeopardy does not arise.

I urge my right hon. Friend to set up an inquiry. I assure him that the Towers case will not go away. On the contrary, the continuing public concern about the case is beginning to undermine confidence in a whole police force, and that is something that I very much deplore. Therefore, it is now in the interests not only of the Towers family but of the Northumbria police force as a whole that justice should not only be done but be seen to be done.

1.14 a.m.

Mr. David Watkins (Consett)

Recognising that time for this debate is very limited, I rise to speak only briefly in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Chester-le-Street (Mr. Radice) in his call for a public inquiry and to congratulate him on having brought this important matter before the House.

Most Adjournment debates tend to be on constituency matters. It is true that this debate centres around one of my hon. Friend's late constituents, but it is not only a constituency matter. It is a matter of national concern, a vital matter about an individual who is dead as a result of homicide committed by the police, as has been found by a coroner's jury.

I have the honour, in this Session of Parliament, to be the Chairman of the Northern Group of Labour Members and must confirm, in that position, that there is a major concern not just in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Chester-le-Street but also in Northumbria and throughout the whole Northern Region, and that there is widespread support for such an inquiry. Indeed, it is clear that there is widespread support for that course of action not just in the North but throughout the whole country, and that support has been widely and publicly manifested.

So long as the present situation lasts the police themselves are under a cloud, which has effected public confidence, and it is as much in the interests of the police as of anyone else that there should be an inquiry on this narrow issue. That was the point so ably put by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) in his intervention. I hope that the Minister will respond favourably to the call that has been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chester-le-Street.

12.17 p.m.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

I intervene briefly to express my sympathy for the family of the dead man and because it ought not to go out from this House that we are lending our authority to any generalised attacks against the Northumbrian police or any other police service. I absolutely acquit the hon. Member for Chester-le-Street (Mr. Radice) of any such intention, but having seen, the other night, a film purporting to suggest that the Special Patrol Group of the Metropolitan Police was guilty of brutality at Grunwick, and having seen some of the publicity that has unfortunately surrounded this matter, I can well understand that the police themselves believe that they are being unfairly got at in Parliament.

The Minister will no doubt give us the Government's thinking on the question of an inquiry. I have an open mind on that. There has been an inquest and an investigation—a thorough one—by an experienced detective chief superintendent. The Director of Public Prosecutions has considered the matter carefully, and so have the Attorney-General and the Home Secretary. A formidable range of consideration has been given by responsible people to this matter and their conclusion has been unanimous, namely, that there is no evidence on which to found charges of improper conduct on the part of the police.

No one can do anything other than regret the case of a man who has come to his death in this way, but it is right to record that in 1974 in the Northumbria police area there were 157 assaults on policemen that led to injuries sufficiently serious to be compensated by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board. In 1975 there were 213 such injuries and in 1976 there were 210. In the first 10 months of this year that figure was close to 300. Many of these assaults resulted in serious injuries. I have a list of them here, with which I shall not now weary the House. I ask only that, while expressing our sympathy for this man, the Home Secretary should give earnest consideration to the request for an inquiry and that he should set that consideration against the background knowledge that the police are in the front line and that they suffer these assaults in defending the rest of us and maintaining public order.

1.19 a.m.

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

I should like to say at the outset that I very much regret the death of Mr. Towers and sympathise with his relatives in what for them must remain a lasting sorrow. A case such as that of Mr. Towers, who, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chester-le-Street (Mr. Radice) has said, died as a result of an encounter with the police, understandably gives rise to genuine concern, and it is essential that it should be the subject of full and thorough investigation and consideration.

I assure the House that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has been in no doubt of the public and parliamentary concern about the case and has given full and anxious consideration to the representations which have been made, including the deputation my hon. Friend took to him, for an inquiry under Section 32 of the Police Act 1964, even though he has decided that in all the circumstances of this case it would not be appropriate to invoke that procedure.

The death occurred in the Durham police area and, in accordance with normal practice, a full investigation for the coroner was carried out by the Durham police, who made a public appeal for eye witnesses of the arrest. The statements from all persons who offered them, the police officers concerned in the arrest and at the police station, other persons detained there and the doctors concerned, were supplied to the coroner. The coroner decided who should be called to give evidence and it would be wrong for me to comment on his decision in this matter, or on the inquest verdict. Salient evidence at the inquest was that of P.C. Goodrick's fall on Towers, and medical evidence that the nature of Towers' fatal injuries were such that a fall as described at the inquest was the most probable cause; such injuries from kicks were only a remote possibility.

There has been some criticism of the fact that police officers other than P.C. Goodrick declined, on the advice of their solicitor, to submit to cross-examination. In this they were exercising the same right as is available to any witness at an inquest. Their full statements were, of course, included with those sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions as part of the case papers.

As to the suggestion that incriminating evidence was available from other people who were at Gateshead police station but who were not called at the inquest. I understand that the substance of their evidence was merely that they heard some scuffling and banging of cell doors. In his summing up, the coroner said that there was no evidence which he had heard of any violence which took place at Gateshead police station. It is true that the verdict is an uncommon one, but, as the Attorney-General indicated in his Written Answer in May, he had received no application on behalf of the family for a fresh inquest and I understand that he has received none since. The reopening of the inquest is not a matter in which my right hon. Friend has a responsibility; it is one for my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General.

The inquest was by no means the end of the matter. A report of the inquest was sent to the Director of Public prosecutions and the case was further considered by him. Before the inquest, a full report of the police investigation, which included all the statements taken by the police, had been submitted to the Director of Public Prosecutions. The Director decided that the evidence was not such as to justify any criminal proceedings. On 3rd May my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General announced that the case had been the subject of a very full investigation, which included a thorough examination of the vital evidence by no less than three consultants, who were Dr. Ennis and Mr. Smiddy, both of whom gave evidence at the inquest, and, finally, Professor Donald Teare. They were all agreed that there was no medical evidence to support a contention that Mr. Towers' death was in any way attributable to wilful violence or rough handling by the police.

The Attorney-General added that he had given those associated with Mr. Towers' family an opportunity of providing any further medical evidence or of applying for an order quashing the inquest but that no further medical evidence or such application had been received. He concluded, like the Director of Public Prosecutions and leading counsel, that in the light of the evidence, and particularly the unanimous evidence of the medical experts, this was not a case in which criminal proceedings should be instituted. The Attorney-General was in possession of the Towers' case document "The Case for a Public Inquiry"

The Chief Constable dealt with the question of possible disciplinary proceedings in his statement on 10th May. He concluded, and quite rightly in the view of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, that, having regard to the need to avoid double jeopardy, no disciplinary action should be taken against any of the officers.

The principle of double jeopardy is important. Briefly, it means that a police officer should not, because he is subject to a disciplinary code as well as to the criminal law, be at risk twice in relation to allegations of criminal offences. If the Director decides that there is insufficient evidence to bring criminal proceedings against a member of the public, his decision—unless some new relevant evidence emerges later—is the end of that allegation. The principle of no double jeopardy, endorsed by Parliament in the Police Act 1976, means that a police officer in similar circumstances should not be liable to have the same allegation resurrected as a possible disciplinary offence. That principle protects police officers by ensuring that they are not liable to be proceeded against for an alleged disciplinary offence for which the evidence that could be brought against them was, in substance, that which had been held insufficient to justify a criminal prosecution.

I come to the Section 32 inquiry. By May of this year the cause of Mr. Towers' death had been established. The Attorney-General had decided that there should not be criminal proceedings and the chief constable had decided that no disciplinary proceedings were warranted. The due processes of investigation and consideration of the case by the properly constituted authorities had been gone through by those responsible.

My hon. Friends who want an inquiry are saying, in effect, that there has been no public investigation of the case, apart from the inquest, which in some respects they have seen as not fully answering allegations made against the police—and that despite the considered opinion of the Director that there should be an inquiry under Section 32 of the Police Act so that justice can be seen to be done.

As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary explained in July, when he reached his decision that a Section 32 inquiry would not be justified, one of the relevant considerations that he takes into account is that a Section 32 inquiry should not be regarded as a substitute for the procedures already laid down in the Police Acts for the investigation and consideration of complaints, or for investigation into possible criminal offiences or into the outcome of criminal proceedings. Nor would it be appropriate to see a Section 32 inquiry as a means of challenging decisions taken by those responsible for such matters. It is true, of course, that Section 11 of the Police Act 1976 does not preclude a Section 32 inquiry. It is true also that for the purpose of a Section 32 inquiry police officers could he granted immunity from subsequent criminal or disciplinary proceedings.

It is the opinion of the Home Secretary that it is a different matter to argue that he should appoint such an inquiry in this case. There is still the important consideration of the general principle, that is, of the protection of the position of individual police officers, which must clearly be considered a relevant factor in this case if it is in practice to mean anything at all.

The stark fact is that allegations have been made against the conduct of the officers who arrested Liddle Towers. Those allegations amount to ones of serious criminal offences. It would be artificial from every point of view to hold an inquiry into the case that did not examine those allegations. Yet, even if an immunity from subsequent criminal proceedings were given, the officers would still in effect be standing trial on allegations that in the view of the DPP did not provide adequate grounds for bringing criminal charges and standing trial without the normal safeguards of a criminal court. I cannot believe the House would think that justified.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary set out in his letter of 29th July the general considerations that are borne in mind in the consideration of requests for a section 32 inquiry. To set up such an inquiry, like the more general power to recommend to Parliament the use of the 1921 Tribunal of Inquiry (Evidence) Act, is a major step, and not one to be taken lightly. Successive Home Secretaries have taken the view that the power should be rarely exercised. Although no absolute rules can be laid down, the view is taken that it should be reserved, for example, for circumstances in which there is a national scandal concerning a police force, where the whole efficiency of the force is called into question or where there has been serious public disorder.

It is also relevant to consider whether a particular incident can be or should be dealt with in some other way. That is especially relevant in this case. It would not be right to view a section 32 inquiry as a substitute for the other statutory investigations and procedures that have already been gone through, which arrived at conclusions that do not satisfy those involved.

It is said in respect of Mr. Spoor's television interview that he came out in support of an inquiry in a programme put out by Tyne-Tees. I am informed that Mr. Spoor said that the programme gave a misleading impression and did not reproduce all that he had said in response to questions asked of him at the interview. I am given to understand that he said in a full interview that he was sure that his clients would have nothing to fear if there were to be any further investigation of the case.

It was also said in a Press statement that the Police Federation has called for an inquiry. Again, that statement is not correct. I am informed that in a letter last month the Federation's view is that nothing can be gained by another investigation into the case. The Federation also said: It would appear that there has been no further new evidence to substantiate the claim for it. I am informed that the chief constable has given the authority a full report of the Liddle Towers case and that a special meeting was held. I understand that the authority resolved that the remarks made by the representatives of the Liddle Towers Committee be noted and that no action be taken to support their request for a public inquiry into the Liddle Towers case. I understand that the authority has passed a resolution expressing complete confidence in the chief constable and members of the Northumbria police force over the manner in which they carried out their duties.

I assure my hon. Friend and those who have spoken in the debate that my right hon. Friend will be made fully aware of all the points that have been raised. He will receive a full account of the case that has been put. For the reasons that I have stated, my right hon. Friend does not consider that a Section 32 inquiry into the case, or more widely into the Northumbria police, would be justified.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes to Two o'clock.