§ 17. Mr. Goodhart
asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department how many members of the Metropolitan Police Force have been charged with criminal offences in the last three years.
§ Mr. Merlyn Rees
The Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis informs me that the number of officers charged with criminal—excluding traffic—offences was 33 in 1974, 32 in 1975, and 45 in 1976.
§ Mr. Goodhart
As the Secretary of State will know that all policemen are automatically suspended from duty the moment they are charged, may I ask whether he is aware that some policemen have to wait for more than a year and 635 a half before their cases are heard in court? As that sort of delay can ruin the career of men who are later proved innocent, can he co-operate with his noble Friend the Lord Chancellor to try to find a way of giving priority to the hearing of cases involving serving policemen?
§ Mr. Rees
The hon. Gentleman is referring to a particular case. He has been in touch with my noble Friend about it. I have the letter here. It states:This is a very complex case and the delay in its hearing is in no way attributable to the court. Both prosecution and defence need time to prepare for the trial and both agree that the most suitable time would be September this year.I cannot interfere in that matter.
§ Mr. Mellish
My right hon. Friend will know that the Metropolitan Police in particular has come in for a lot of criticism from certain ill-informed quarters. Does he not agree that the numbers he has just declared are an infinitesimal fraction of this very good band of men and women who do a first-class, brilliant job for London?
§ Mr. Aitken
Does the Home Secretary recall that one of the reasons why the former Police Commissioner, Sir Robert Mark, retired early was his complaint that the future Police Compaints Board might reduce to what he called the imperfect level of criminal justice the procedure by which internal disciplines have been so effectively maintained in the past? Is there not a real danger that, thanks to the cumbersome new machinery being introduced, there will be a rise in the number of these criminal prosecutions, because there is no other effective method for internal discipline to be substituted?
§ Mr. Rees
The question of why the previous Commissioner decided to retire is more complex than the hon. Gentleman would know. I pay tribute to him. He has been a friend of mine for a long time.
636 The internal procedures which are coming into force in June have been passed by this House, and I think it would be a good idea to see how they work. Having praised the police, it is important to state that the complaints against police procedures should be understood and supported by the community at large. I think we shall find that they will work.
§ Mr. Spriggs
Will my right hon. Friend inform the House about the situation of police officers who come under an inquiry order from the chief constable—whether they are suspended from duty during the inquiry or whether they are suspended once they are charged? Which is it?
§ Mr. Eldon Griffiths
Does the Home Secretary agree that he has given an imprecise impression in suggesting that there is only one case of the kind raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart)? As he knows, there are hundreds of police officers falsely accused who are suspended from duty, who are later found to be innocent but whose careers have suffered in the meantime and their wives and families have been pilloried. I hope that the Home Secretary will put the matter into better perspective than he has done so far.
§ Mr. Rees
It is not a matter of proper perspective. I was answering the point on which the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) is writing to me, which the hon. Gentleman does not know about. I gave the precise answer to that. I was talking not about complaints procedure but about one case about which his hon. Friend is concerned. In terms of criminal charges, the hon. Gentleman is wrong. He is referring to the complaints procedure, which is a separate issue about which we were not talking. As to how to answer it, I agree that there is a problem in that respect, but it is not the point that the hon. Member for Beckenham was talking about.
§ Mr. Burden
Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that when charges are apparently well founded there should be suspension? Can he give an undertaking that before suspension is entered into steps are taken to ensure that the charges are not purely malicious and unfounded?
§ Mr. Rees
There is a great difficulty here in the suspension and the procedure under the complaints arrangement, as opposed to the criminal case. There are problems, as I know when I go around the country, but we shall look at that point carefully. I know that chief constables—who, after all, have rights in this matter, as they should have—will take into account what the hon. Gentleman has said.