HC Deb 13 April 1978 vol 947 cc1807-18

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

10.0 p.m.

Mr. Christopher Price (Lewisham, West)

; It is almost six years since Maxwell Confait was found dead in a blazing house in my constituency, and it is not my intention to rake over his ashes. I want to look to the future and to review the positive aspects of the report by Sir Henry Fisher into the events that surrounded the death which was published in December last year.

I should like to congratulate Sir Henry on a masterly report, though I have some criticisms, to which I shall come later. The most glaring gap in the report is the ground on which Sir Henry was forbidden to tread—the trial at the Old Bailey.

Reading between the lines in the report, one can detect an ignorance about the Judges' Rules that was as great among the barristers and the judge, Mr. Justice Chapman, as that to which Sir Henry openly refers among the police. It is worth remembering how adept lawyers are at making sure that in any inquiry of this sort they are protected from any scrutiny to which others are subjected.

However, it was a very thorough though somewhat schizoid report. Sir Henry seems to have produced his sensible findings on the general principles on the protection of individuals in custody, with which I profoundly agree, before going on to wrestle with his soul about the probabilities of what happened. In this sense, the two halves of the report do not mesh.

For what it is worth, I believe that Sir Henry got his findings on probability wildly wrong. I think that they were based on psychological judgments with which it was unreasonable for a man of his sheltered judicial background to grapple unaided and that the judicial mode of his inquiry was inapt for any verdict on probabilities. The report concerned not probabilities but vague possibilities. What happened remains a mystery. There were two broad possibilities: first, that the boys' confessions were suggested by the police, and, second, that the confessions were true. A "finding" of either scenario, if false, represents a grave calumny, either against the police, or against my constituents.

Sir Henry might have done well simply to have stated the facts and left well alone. Instead, he chose the latter possibility and called it a probability, wrongly in my view, postulating the theory that Colin Lattimore's false confession to the killing was suggested not so much by the police as by his two companion defendants. It was a bizarre judgment, unbolstered by any detail or evidence, and one from which his general conclusions do not follow.

However, I make no complaint about that. I merely enjoin the Home Secretary to consider the terms of any reference to a future inquiry rather more carefully so that no inquiry ever again can even appear to the public to be a review of the judgment of the Court of Appeal. Only the House of Lords is entitled to do that.

I note from the report that the Home Office received it privately in March 1977. One of Sir Henry's first recommendations was that a Royal Commission should be set up to take the matters further. I am pleased that although the Home Office delayed publication until December of last year, it acceded to this request in July.

Sir Henry Fisher recommended a Royal Commission on the very familiar ground that it was unsafe for him personally in his inquiry to draw general conclusions from a particular case. That is disingenuous. To draw general conclusions from the Appeal Court's judgment is exactly what Sir Henry's task was all about. It was what Mr. Roy Jenkins asked him to do when he set up the inquiry.

It is a very English tradition that we reform anything only after a particular scandal. Children's legislation in the 1950s emerged only after the death of one child in care in 1948. Therefore, I am pleased that the Royal Commission has been set up. I very much hope that it will be seen as a vehicle for the implementation of the reforms suggested by Sir Henry Fisher rather than as an excuse to commit them to oblivion. Knowing the Home Office as well as I do, I rather fear the latter.

I recognise that the broad recommendations of the Fisher Report, particularly about the enforcement of the Judges' Rules, are a matter for the Royal Commission. I do not intend to canvass them too strongly now, because I believe that if we set up a Royal Commission we should let it get on with its job. On that general point, however, I would simply say that as long as there is in our courts judicial discretion to overlook breaches of the Judges' Rules, the Judges' Rules will be breached. The only way to ensure that the rules are adhered to and that miscarriages of justice similar to the Con-fait case do not occur is to insist that evidence taken in breach of them is automatically inadmissible, without any judicial discretion whatsoever.

What I am most concerned about tonight, however, is not the general principles. However, as the Under-Secretary is present—and I take this opportunity of wishing the Minister of State all the best of luck for a very rapid recovery in the Principality, which I am sure he will achieve—I must say that what I am most concerned about is those very specific areas in which it lies within the power of the Home Office to make or to mar the task of the Royal Commission, particularly concerning the Fisher recommendations, of which I shall mention four.

The first recommendation is tape recording. This has a very long history. Right back in 1972, the Criminal Law Revision Committee suggested that something should be done about it. In God's good time, or the Home Office's good time, a committee was set up, to which the Home Office now refers as the Feasibilities Committee. That reported a couple of years ago and recommended that an experiment should take place. Instead of doing anything about it, the Home Office decided to "consult", as it called it. It consulted for a couple of years.

What the Home Office has done now is to send a document to the Royal Commission entitled "Tape Recording of Police Interrogations". It is one of those documents which are deposited in the House of Commons Library but are kept secret from everyone else. The covering letter in the Library from the Home Office says: We regard this document as virtually public. If the Under-Secretary has time during her reply, she might tell me what "virtually public" means. Does it mean public or does it mean secret?

Even the Prime Minister, a notable incumbent of the Home Office in previous times, says that he believes in open government these days. Perhaps even the Home Office—though I expect that it will be the very last of all Departments of State to come around to this—might begin to believe in open government. Instead of making documents virtually public, it might even get around to making them public.

Anyway, this document, although purporting occasionally, in odd sentences, to be objective, is in fact not remotely objective, as was made clear in The Times in an articule by Marcel Berlins last Saturday. It is a document calculated—that is a good legal word, a nice objective legal word—to persuade the Royal Commission not to engage in an experiment on tape recording so that it can make some recommendations about tape recording.

Does the Home Office want an experiment on tape recording or not? Is it really trying to persuade the Royal Commission to duck out of an experiment on tape recording on grounds of cost, as this document seems to imply, or is it really trying to get it to duck out of the experiment because it is terrified that the police are opposed to it? It is clear that the police are opposed to it. Many policemen to whom I talk say that they are against it.

If that is the reason why we are not to have an experiment on tape recording of police interrogations and the taking of statements, let us know and let us not have this nonsense about how expensive it would be. Every lawyer to whom I speak agrees that it would save millions of pounds if we could avoid the endless arguments that highly paid QCs have day in and day out at the Old Bailey and our other courts as to who said what to whom.

Even the Confait Report cost £200,000, and that is not counting the costs of the police and the DPP. The cost of this sort of argument is enormous. Therefore, the cost of tape recording would be evenly balanced out quite easily. It is utterly disingenuous of the Home Office to put up an argument of cost when I suspect that it is really talking about an argument of police opposition. If that is the real argument, the Home Office might at least come out with it.

Secondly, I should like to ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary how the Home Office is getting on with the recommendation of the Fisher Report, which I understand my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is willing to go ahead with in advance of a report from the Royal Commission, about full publication not only of the Judges' Rules and the administrative directions but of all the various Home Office circulars to the police departments in one volume.

The most shattering recommendation and finding of the Fisher Report was that nobody—including the police and eminent Queen's Counsel and judges—understood what the Judges' Rules meant, and much less applied them in the courts. Many of the Home Office circulars are not published in "Archbold", which is the only book a judge grabs and looks at when he is called upon to rule on these matters in court. It is urgent that the Home Office should get these publications out.

I should like to make one other plea to my hon. Friend. Time and time again in the Fisher Report there are statements that this, that and the other have been included in the general orders for the Metropolitan Police, yet time and time again I have asked the Home Secretary to publish the general orders for the Metropolitan police and again and again he refuses to do so. He will not say what they are. The general orders for the Metropolitan Police are becoming like the prison rules and the social security rules. They are secret rules which are used to trip people up at the last moment.

If these matters are included in the general orders for the Metropolitan Police, what is so secret about them? Why should we not know? Why should not my hon. Friend be able to publish the general orders? I warn her that I shall return to this question later if she cannot give me a clear promise that she will be able to move towards publishing these general orders.

I have three more quick points. The first—and I take this very seriously—concerns the research to be undertaken for the Royal Commission. It is a Royal Commission and not a Home Office in-house job. It is meant to be a Royal Commission operating under the Queen's commission, yet all its research, I understand, is to be controlled by the Home Office research unit. The present papers put up by the Home Office research unit suggest that everything should be kept quite tightly within the Home Office and the institutions which are regularly and massively funded by the Home Office, and that no research is to be allowed to be done by those eminent British institutions, such as the Tavistock Institute, whose research findings are not acceptable by the Home Office.

I give my hon. Friend warning that if it turns out that the only research which the Royal Commission seems to be allowed to commission is that being done by what I would broadly call tame organisations, I shall return to this subject again and again, because that will show that the Royal Commission is not a genuine Royal Commission but a creature of the Home Office. I should like to have a very strong assurance from my hon. Friend that it will be open to the Royal Commission to commission research from any institution which it thinks proper for the purpose.

Next week will be the sixth anniversary of the arrest of these three youngsters over whom there was a miscarriage of justice. The Home Office has still not come up with any compensation. Two of them are married, with children. It is a little unreasonable even for the Home Office to sit on things and to dilly-dally as long as this. The first excuse was that the Fisher Report inevitably delayed compensation, but I understand that in proceedings before the assessor he said that the Fisher Report made no difference whatsoever and that he will award compensation as though the Fisher inquiry had never taken place.

I very much hope that in her speech my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be able to announce the amounts of compensation which will be available to the three youngsters against whom miscarriages of justice took place.

I sat throughout the Fisher inquiry, except for slight absences here and there, and in my view the evidence that was gathered is quite crucial for the future of criminal justice in Britain. I very much hope that my hon. Friend will be able to assure me that that evidence will not be locked up in some Home Office vault for the next 30 years but will be available at least to scholars, even in a Home Office-type institution such as the Institute of Criminology at Cambridge, so that scholars who really want to study it will be able to do so and form their verdict, which over the years to come might be a little different from that of Sir Henry Fisher.

10.17 p.m.

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

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) has raised the subject of Sir Henry Fisher's report, because I can give him some of the reassurance that he seeks.

Perhaps I should explain that the report arose because the convictions of the three boys—Colin Lattimore, Ronald Leighton and Ahmet Salih—were referred by the then Home Secretary to the Court of Appeal in 1975. Four months later, their convictions were quashed by the court and they were immediately released.

In view of the public concern which arose following the Appeal Court judgment, the Government announced in November 1975 the setting up of an independent inquiry to investigate the circumstances leading to the trial of the three boys. Sir Henry Fisher, a former High Court judge, was invited to conduct the inquiry.

Because the inquiry took place in private, certain understandings of confidentiality were necessarily given in respect of the evidence submitted. This relates to the last point that my hon. Friend raised. It was on this basis that witnesses gave evidence. It would be a breach of faith if the inquiry documents were made public now or, as my hon. Friend suggested, if they were made available to research workers or to the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure. I doubt whether there would be much advantage in this, in that Sir Henry Fisher made it clear that his report was prepared in such a way that its findings would be supported by extensive references to the evidence. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is, however, considering the possibility that the Royal Commission might have access to some parts of the unpublished evidence, and he will write to my hon. Friend about this in the near future.

I turn to Sir Henry Fisher's findings about the involvement of the three youths which, on a balance of probabilities, were different both from those of the trial court and from those of the Court of Appeal. At the trial, Colin Lattimore and Ronald Leighton were convicted of killing Maxwell Confait and they and Ahmet Salih—who did not stand trial for the killing—were convicted of arson. Sir Henry Fisher's finding was that Ronald Leighton and Ahmet Salih were involved in the killing and that all three youths took part in the arson.

With regard to the youths' legal status now, the simple answer is that their convictions were quashed by the Court of Appeal. That is equivalent to an acquittal and, so far as the criminal law is concerned, that is the end of the matter. There is no conceivable way in which the criminal courts could examine the matter afresh. There is no right of appeal by the prosecution, and the Home Secretary has no power to refer the case again to the Court of Appeal, even if he wished to do so.

My hon. Friend asked what view the Home Secretary takes on Sir Henry Fisher's findings on the balance of probabilities. It would be improper for the Home Secretary to express a view one way or the other. The proper authority for determining questions of guilt is the courts, and he cannot prefer his own view to theirs. As I have said, in law the youths' convictions have been quashed.

It has been said that the present situation is unsatisfactory for all concerned. But it is not correct to say that Sir Henry Fisher found the young men guilty. He was not conducting a trial, and he said no more than that he found, on the balance of probabilities, that they were involved in the offences. The young men have not been placed in this situation by the Government or other public authority. They and their advisers pressed for the inquiry to be held, and at the inquiry, and in all matters relating to it, the young men were fully represented by solicitors and counsel.

With regard to compensation, the former Home Secretary agreed when the three young men's convictions were quashed by the Court of Appeal that they were eligible for ex gratia compensation by the Home Office. Interim payments were made of amounts recommended by the independent assessor to whom such cases are customarily referred, but it was decided that a final assessment would have to await Sir Henry Fisher's findings. In reply to a Question by my hon. Friend on 13th December 1977, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said that if the young men wished he would refer all three cases for further consideration by the assessor. Their legal advisers informed the Home Office that they wished to proceed, and, after consultation with them about the terms of the memorandum to be sent to the assessor, the cases were referred to him at the beginning of March. I understand that the applicants' legal advisers have since made representations direct to the assessor.

The assessor has not yet made recommendations to the Home Secretary. In doing so he will, in accordance with the normal procedure, have regard to the extent to which the convictions were attributable to any action or failure to act by the police or other public authority or were contributed to by the accused persons' own conduct. Sir Henry Fisher has things to say on both counts which the assessor may wish to take into account. It would not be right to exclude these matters from the assessor's consideration or to seek to influence him in any other way.

I turn now to the broader policy aspects of criminal law and procedure on which Sir Henry Fisher has put forward a number of valuable suggestions. Sir Henry himself accepted that changes which he suggested would need further examination by a body like a Royal Commission. Many of his more substantial suggestions fall into this category, including his proposals relating to the Judges' Rules. I think it is common ground among us that this task can most appropriately be done by the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure, which was announced last June by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

This inevitably means some delay, but, having set up a Royal Commission, we must give it the opportunity to weigh all the relevant considerations. In doing so the Commission will need to consider not only the particular suggestions put forward by Sir Henry Fisher but the views of others with an interest in those areas, including those whose views may run counter to the suggestions expressed in the report. It is not an excuse for inactivity, but is will cover a wide range of possible reforms in the law. It is eagerly awaited by many people.

With regard to the other point which my hon. Friend made, the Royal Commission's research will not be controlled by the Home Office research unit. It is for the Royal Commission itself to decide what research it needs to assist it in its work and how it should be organised. It can have research done by anyone it likes. It can go anywhere that it wishes. It is up to the Royal Commission entirely.

While any substantive changes in the whole area covered by the Judges' Rules must await the views of the Royal Commission, my right hon. Friend has announced his intention to reissue in one document the Judges' Rules, the administrative directions to the police and the related Home Office circulars, so as to ensure that they are well known to the police and to members of the legal profession. This publication should appear well before the Summer Recess. In the Metropolitan Police, the Commissioner has issued a recent force order emphasising the importance of complying with the rules and directions. I understand that my hon. Friend has recently written about this to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who is considering whether these orders can be published. It would be inappropriate for me to comment at length on this request at this stage beyond saying that it is a long-established practice not to publish Metropolitan Police general orders which include information on police operational matters.

My hon. Friend asked about the Government's attitude towards the tape recording of police interrogations. Following the report published in 1976 by the Home Office committee which looked into the feasibility of an experiment in tape recording, we consulted a number of individuals and organisations with an interest in the subject. I must stress that, far from being unanimous, their views showed a remarkable divergence, and no unanimity of view emerged about whether an experiment would be desirable. The Home Office has now submitted a memorandum to the Royal Commission inviting it to consider whether it wishes to submit any views to the Government on a possible tape recording experiment and the form which this might take. I assure my hon. Friend that, in the light of the Commission's views, the Government will decide whether to go ahead with an experiment.

I also assure my hon. Friend that not all the policy topics raised in Sir Henry Fisher's report need await the Royal Commission. My rt. hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General has arranged for the examination of certain suggestions which affect the responsibilities and staffing of the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. Working parties set up by the Director of Public Prosecutions are already considering Sir Henry Fisher's findings on these points. In particular, they are looking at the review of the Prosecution of Offences Regulations 1946 and, in relation to cases committed for trial, the disclosure to the defence of statements and other information in the possession of the prosecution, and the editing of witness statements.

My Department has also arranged for Sir Henry's suggestions in regard to pathologists and their reports to be examined. In addition, Sir Henry's suggestions about the submission of the police report to the Director of Public Prosecutions have been drawn to the notice of the Association of Chief Police Officers, which has agreed to ensure that they are brought to the attention of all police forces, including those responsible for detective training schools.

Sir Henry Fisher's report is a valuable document on what is in many ways a distressing case. There have been lessons to be learned from it for all of us. In reserving judgment on a number of wider issues, my rt hon. Friend the Home Secretary is in no way dismissing what Sir Henry had to say, but the areas are so important that we must move forward with great care. We shall move forward, and we are moving forward. That is why I have put a good deal of emphasis on awaiting the views of the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half past Ten o'clock.