HC Deb 31 July 1980 vol 989 cc1887-98

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

10.38 pm
Mr. Michael Meacher () Oldham, West

At a late hour, but with relief that it was not considerably later, let me say at the outset that I am in no way seeking to reopen the Blair Peach case as such, but it is clear that this episode raises significant issues that demand further attention. I should add that this debate takes place in the context of the judgment only three days ago by Lord Justice Shaw regarding the Peter Jeonney case on Merseyside, where it is now established that the police invented a story which procured a heavy sentence. In that case the judge ruled that members of the public should not be at the mercy of the police.

In the light of that, certain aspects of the Blair Peach case need to be looked at again. In particular, there are certain important public issues which have been left open and unresolved by the Blair Peach affair and which only Parliament can now resolve. The first is what I call trial by inquest in the Blair Peach and other recent cases, which is wholly inappropriate.

There are several serious criticisms to be made of the coroner's handling of the Blair Peach inquest. First, even in a matter as sensitive as this he refused to call a jury to sit with him until the matter was taken to the Court of Appeal, which ordered him to do so. Secondly, he made available the crucial evidence of the police report, which in this case was compiled by Commander Cass, to one side—namely, counsel for the Metropolitan Police—but not to the other—namely, counsel for the family—so that only one side knew how the evidence of early witnesses might tally with the later evidence or what evidence that was available had not been put to the jury. Thirdly, he introduced his extraordinary martyr theory—that Blair Peach was killed by an ANL supporter in the hope of casting blame on the police—for apparently no other reasons—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Richard Crawshaw)

Order. The hon. Gentleman is entitled to reach the conclusion that the wrong decision was arrived at, but I do not think he is entitled to say that the coroner made the decision in order to cast doubt, because he is then attacking the coroner. I do not think that he intends to do that. Perhaps he can frame his remarks in a different way.

Mr. Meacher

I do not in any way wish to cast discredit, but there are matters raised by the handling of the inquest from which I wish to draw the general conclusion that there should be a change in the inquest procedure. It is, therefore, incumbent on me to indicate how this particular inquest, as well as other inquests, was defective.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but unless I heard him wrongly he made a remark and then said that that was the conclusion he had drawn from it, as if to imply the making of a suggestion in order to find a particular fact.

Mr. Meacher

I indicated that it would appear to be the case—but I could, of course, be wrong in drawing this conclusion—that the coroner introduced one kind of extreme theory in order, it would appear, to throw doubt on the other extreme theory—the words "extreme theory" are his words, not mine—that Blair Peach was murdered by a police officer with an unauthorised weapon. I am not saying that the two were introduced so that the one would discredit the other, but that conclusion was drawn, and it is difficult to think of any other reason why the first theory was introduced, which seems absolutely bizarre and which no one up to that moment had suggested.

My fourth criticism is that the summing-up produced a remarkable interpretation of the evidence—namely, that Blair Peach was there at his own risk and that if the police believed that there was a riot, even if they were wrong in that supposition, a verdict of misadventure was appropriate. That was a categorisation of the evidence which, one might reasonably conclude, seemed expressly designed to preclude the more obvious conclusion of homicide.

It was because of the deeply unsatisfactory nature of the inquest procedure in this case that many people sought a public inquiry thereafter. I am bound to say that the reasons that the Home Secretary has given for refusing this are both defensive and unconvincing. He stated that it would not improve the situation, that it would not reveal what happened and that it was difficult to get judges to undertake inquiries of that kind. I doubt whether the same arguments would have been deployed if a policeman had been killed.

Clearly, it would improve the situation a great deal if an inquiry were set up which, first, showed that something did go badly wrong at Southall and would acknowledge it and, secondly, ensured that all the evidence was made available and all the relevant witnesses were called. The excuse about a judge not being available to conduct an inquiry is pure smokescreen.

We have, in my view, the worst of both worlds: an inquest which was defective and a public inquiry which would be adequate but which has been denied. For these reasons, I ask the Home Secretary again to think seriously whether it would not still be in the public interest to establish a public inquiry into this incident.

The Blair Peach case is not an isolated example of the inadequate procedures of an inquest. In the Jimmy Kelly case the police investigation report was witheld from the inquest, witness statements were given to counsel in an incomplete form, not all the available witnesses were called and there were complaints about the inadequate facilities in court.

It needs to be emphasised strongly that public confidence in the police depends on a manifestly rigorous and impartial investigation of any case where policemen are suspected of breaking the law. I submit that neither inquests in general, as at present constituted, nor the Blair Peach case in particular come anywhere near to meeting that high standard.

Lord Belstead, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, said in his letter to me dated 4 July: I do not accept, therefore, your criticisms of the inquest. The fact is that an inquest is only one of a series of procedural measures—inquest, police investigations, consideration by the Director of Public Prosecutions—which are put in train in circumstances such as the death of Mr. Peach. Together"— this is the important point— these measures have covered properly all aspects of Mr. Peach's case. With respect to Lord Belstead, I suggest that that is precisely what they have not done. The inquest was markedly defective, for the reasons which I have given.

The police investigation report may have been filed, but we were not permitted to know because it was not revealed to the interested parties. It was only the leaking of the equivalent police investigation report in the Jimmy Kelly case which indicated how defective that report was.

Consideration by the Director of Public Prosecutions was somewhat marred by the fact that the reasons for his decision not to prosecute were never publicly stated. Again, it was only when his reasons were leaked for a similar decision in the Kelly case that they were shown to be defective in that case.

Therefore, I conclude that the Home Office's bland approbation of these procedures still leaves a great deal to be explained.

I believe that in the light of this case the Home Secretary should consider the need for several reforms. In particular, I believe that the following changes need to be made. First, in every inquest where the suspected cause of death is homicide, there should be a duty on the coroner to sit with a jury, and the jury should be randomly selected from the electoral registers in the coroner's district.

Second, where a death has occurred in police custody or where a police officer is suspected of causing the death, the coroner's officer, who is a police officer on secondment, should be replaced by a non-police official.

Third, all evidence—the emphasis is on "all evidence"—obtained by the coroner should be made available to the parties concerned, who should have the right to insist on additional evidence being called and additional witnesses being summoned where that is relevant.

Fourth, the normal rules of evidence—including, for example, the hearsay rule—should apply.

Fifth, witnesses should be examined and cross-examined by the parties represented at the hearing, with the coroner, like a judge in civil or criminal proceedings, merely supplementing their questions.

Sixth, counsel for each party represented should be entitled to sum up his or her views at the end of the hearing before the coroner's summing-up.

Seventh, no coroner should be appointed if he does not have legal qualifications. I believe that that still happens sometimes. Above all, training should be given to coroners, particularly on matters such as the direction of the jury and the summing-up.

Eight, proper facilities should be provided at coroner's courts. In the recent cases which had so much publicity, there were many complaints about that. The parties represented could then meet in private, would have adequate space in the courtroom, and members of the public and of the press could be admitted.

Finally, the jury should have the right to add riders to its verdict. That right has recently been taken away. It should be restored.

The verdict of misadventure was given on the ground that Blair Peach was at the Southall meeting at his own risk. That puts in jeopardy the fundamental right of political assembly in a democracy. If he went there with perfectly proper and peaceful intentions—no one has suggested that he did not do so—and if he did not originate or participate in the violence, and if it is true that the Special Patrol Group officers—through indiscriminate counter-violence—killed him with, as it would appear, an impunity, what guarantee can anyone have of safety if he or she attends political gatherings on a large scale? I accept, however, that the important word is "if".

In a letter dated 4 July in a reply to that point, Lord Belstead said: The freedom of individuals to gather together provided the law is observed is no more thrown in doubt by the Peach case". I accept that the freedom of the individual is not impugned. However, such a freedom becomes somewhat academic if its exercise is not accompanied by a guarantee that the individual's security will be safeguarded or if it is violated and those responsible are not brought to justice. In this case, it is the absence of that which calls in question our so-called freedom.

This episode shows the need for an amendment to be made to the Representation of the People Act. First, we should ensure that members of the public are entitled to enter an election meeting. Secondly, we must provide a legal guarantee of the right to peaceful demonstration. I know that these matters are being examined by the Home Secretary in his current review of public order law. I hope that as a result those two changes will be made.

Finally, I am concerned about the role of the Special Patrol Group. The SPG has never been sanctioned by public opinion or by any extended parliamentary debate. I accept that the odd parliamentary question has been asked on this subject, but the matter has not been sufficiently probed. The SPG was originally intended, in the 1960s, as an anti-crime squad. However, it has been used extensively, among other things, against black and white working-class youths in the implementation of the "sus" laws and against political demonstrators and industrial pickets.

As the Home Office letter of 4 July said, members of the SPG do not routinely carry weapons. I accept that. However, the SPG is regularly used, armed, against civilian targets. That cannot be denied. I am aware of the reforms in the organisation and structure of the SPG which were announced on 10 March. They do not satisfy the need for genuine reform.

Following the Kavanagh report, it was proposed to divide control of the SPG into four districts. That will not stop the violence or the methods that are often used. Secondly, it was proposed to put a three-year limit on membership of the SPG. That could make things worse, because more policemen who were trained and committed to SPG methods would return to the beat. I conclude that there is no publicly agreed authorisation for the current role of the SPG. Either that should be regularised by full public discussion of the need for such units with such methods or, in the absence of such a need being demonstrated, the SPG should be disbanded.

Mr. John Wheeler () Paddington

Will the hon. Member give way?

Mr. Meacher

Very briefly. I have only one more minute for my part of the debate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) has passed the half-way mark.

Mr. Meacher

In that case I am sorry, I cannot give way. I wish to spend half a minute making a final plea. If the Minister will give time to his hon. Friend, that is a matter for him.

I repeat that these are issues of great public moment which go far beyond a short debate on the Adjournment. I end by calling on the Home Secretary again to make arrangements, after further consideration during the recess, for a fuller debate on these matters when the House returns in the autumn.

10.56 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Leon Brittan)

I welcome the opportunity to deal with the matters raised by the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher). It seems to me that what he has said is vitiated by two fundamental errors of approach. On the one hand, he seems to be willing to wound yet he is afraid to strike. He began the debate by telling us that he did not propose to reopen the Blair Peach case as such, and yet he proceeded, by a series of innuendoes, to imply that the conduct of the inquest was such as to lead to a conclusion different from the one which he would have thought more appropriate.

In fact, there is no reason to think that even if all the changes that the hon. Member has suggested had been made there would have been the slighest difference in the outcome of the inquest into this case. The way the hon. Member put it was less than candid in that he seemed to imply that a change in the inquest verdict would have resulted, in spite of his having begun the debate by saying in a would-be disarming manner that he was not proposing to reopen the case. For that reason, I regard his approach to the matter as having been characteristic of a readiness to wound with a reluctance to strike because he knew that he did not have the weapons to make the charge stick.

I also would stigmatise the hon. Member's approach to this matter as being one in which he was ready to derive the most exaggerated conclusions from totally unproven hypotheses. His stricture on the implications of this case in relation to the freedom of the individual to demonstrate was a classic illustration of that. He said that if members of the Special Patrol Group were able to do this, that and the other to people who were demonstrating, the consequences were that in some sort of way people's rights to demonstrate were impaired or limited.

There is absolutely no proven evidence to suggest that the Special Patrol Group behaved in the way that the hon. Member hypothecated. Yet he did not hesitate to draw the fundamentally ominous conclusion, and to invite the House to do the same, that the right to demonstrate was impaired when that whole conclusion was vitiated by the fact that it was based on an unproven hypothesis. That is neither a logical nor a scientific way to proceed. What is much more serious is that it is not a fair way to proceed. The hon. Member's presentation of the case, which began with the statement that the Blair Peach case would not be reopened as such, deserves serious criticism.

The hon. Member seemed to suggest that the Special Patrol Group was some kind of nefarious body attacking innocent people when in reality the vast bulk of its work has, throughout its existence, related to matters quite remote from the sort of activity that he castigated. The number of public order events or industrial disputes for which the SPG is on duty is a small part both of the total number of such events and of the totality of the group's work.

The primary purpose of the group remains the same as it was when it was established—to assist hard-pressed local police officers in the fight against crime. In 1979, members of the group made a total of 3,669 arrests. In addition, the group is able to help local and headquarters police commanders in dealing with exceptional incidents or emergencies such as a fire or a terrorist incident.

The hon. Gentleman may have noticed that in answer to a recent question I gave details of the activities of the Special Patrol Group over a six-week period on the London Underground, which led to a very substantial number of arrests. The hon. Gentleman might care to reflect that the degree of concern among people working on the Underground and in public transport generally, as well as among the public at large, has been very considerable with regard to violence suffered on London Transport, and the ability of a group of this kind which can be put to work in a special situation of that kind for a limited period was able to make a significant impact in dealing with a situation that has been the cause of anxiety for a number of years. If I may say so, that activity was far more typical of the work and the role of the Special Patrol Group than the matters which the hon. Gentleman sought to raise.

None the less, one has to recognise that special problems may arise from time to time in the case of a particular group within the police. My right hon. Friend announced on 10 March, as the hon. Gentleman said, the outcome of an inquiry into the operation of the Special Patrol Group and a number of changes which would enable it to perform its essential role as a mobile reserve more effectively in future.

The hon. Gentleman presented those changes as though they were in some sense surreptitious or not debated or canvassed in the House. To my certain knowledge, this whole question and the role of the Special Patrol Group have been raised on the Floor of the House on a very large number of occasions. There really is no mystery about it. The suggestion that in some sense the activities of the group or its reorganisation requires some public imprimatur which it has not had up to now seems to me to be totally without foundation and not to be a suggestion which would have, if it were implemented, any desirable effect whatsoever.

This House has the opportunity of debating these matters, as it has done in the past and as it is doing today. I personally very much welcome the opportunity to put matters clear which have in many cases been muddied, for whatever reason I do not know.

On the question of a further inquiry, the position in the case of Mr. Blair Peach is that, whatever else there has not been, there certainly has been no shortage of inquiries. The matter was looked at, in the first instance, in the broadest sense of the word—not just the Blair Peach death, but the whole question of what went on that day—by the Commissioner of Metropolitan Police. In addition, when that took place there was also the inquiry by Commander Cass into the whole question of whether criminal acts had been committed by any persons. It has been accepted that that inquiry was described as being very thorough by the Director of Public Prosecutions. That was looked at by the Director of Public Prosecutions. That was a further independent scrutiny of the evidence that was available.

The hon. Gentleman has devoted considerable time to the inquest. It is possible to make criticism of inquest procedure. I am not suggesting—nobody would—that every aspect of the procedure is always perfect. The hon. Gentleman suggested that the jury should be entitled to add a rider to its verdict. That is an entitlement that was in existence at the time of the Blair Peach inquest. Indeed, the jury added a rider. The hon. Gentleman would like that right restored. Regardless of whether that is a desirable change, it is slightly strange to make that suggestion when discussing the Blair Peach inquest, because that was exactly what the jury did. It added several riders to its verdict.

A number of the hon. Gentleman's arguments on coroner's court procedure should be considered. However, that is different from suggesting that the procedure is fundamentally vitiated, which he was almost implying. I do not accept that.

The Select Committee on home affairs in its recent report on deaths in custody recommended the implementation of a much earlier proposal of the Brodrick committee—namely, that a coroner's jury should be selected by the same means and in the same manner as juries in other courts. That recommendation is currently being considered in consultation with my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor.

There is no reason to suggest—I repeat this because of the way in which the opposite imputation and implication were unjustifiably made by the hon. Gentleman—that if that recommendation had been made and implemented at the time of the Blair Peach inquest it would have led to a different outcome.

The most substantial matter that the hon. Gentleman raised on the inquest concerned the report of the police in- vestigation into Mr. Peach's death, which he says should have been published or at least made available to the jury and counsel for the Peach family. It is a principle of long standing and of universal application which has been endorsed by successive Governments that the reports of such investigations should not be published. I hope to be able to explain to the House why that is not some indefensible piece of secrecy and obscurantism but a reasonable attitude to take.

The maintenance of the principle that police reports are confidential is in the interests of ensuring full and frank communication between police officers, between chief officers of police and between the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Secretary of State. Many reports contain information that should not be freely disclosed, such as the names and addresses of witnesses, criminal records of named persons and statements made to the police and facts disclosed in the course of an investigation that might be prejudicial to named persons.

If the hon. Gentleman is really concerned with the fearless prosecution of these matters, the last thing in the world that he should want is that police reports should be stymied and stifled by the knowledge that they will be made available to the public.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at eight minutes past Eleven o'clock.