HC Deb 10 March 1982 vol 19 cc942-8

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

10.2 pm

Mr. Stan Thorne (Preston, South)

Just a year ago Lancashire played host to a lengthy criminal trial which became known, for the manner in which the murderers sought to conceal the identity of their victim, as the "handless corpse" trial. It was held at Lancaster, amid strict security, and it is the cost of that security operation, and the burden of that cost upon those who are obliged to bear it, that prompts me to raise the matter though the mechanism of an Adjournment debate. I am indebted to county councillor Tom Sharratt for the detailed information that I wish to submit to the Minister, who will no doubt recognise the concern which exists among ratepayers in the Lancashire area.

The total cost of the trial, which lasted more than six months, cannot be calculated with any great precision. But it is certainly possible to make a fair estimate of the cost to the public purse: proceedings in court, £1.3 million; high-security conversion of cells at Lancaster prison, £8,450; courtroom alterations, including construction of a special dock, £50,000; police security, £820,000. The total estimated cost so far—and appeals have yet to be heard—is £2,178,450.

I am concerned with the £820,000 for the police security operation. Half of that sum will qualify, I understand, for Government grant, but the rest must come from the pockets of Lancashire's ratepayers, and I believe that is wrong. It is wrong because the crime which gave rise to the "handless corpse" trial arose from a vast international conspiracy and the murder itself occurred in Lancashire largely by chance.

The victim, Martin Christopher Johnson, a New Zealander said to have been a major figure in an international drug syndicate, could have been killed in any one of half-a-dozen places—Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Singapore, or other countries to which the syndicate had extended its operations. Indeed, had his killers deferred his execution for 20 minutes more as they drove north on the A6 beyond Lancaster the murder would probably have taken place in Cumbria, and if they had waited another hour or so the scene of the killing might well have been in Scotland. The fact that it happened in Lancashire, and that the body was dumped in a Lancashire quarry, was, I believe, largely fortuitous. Nevertheless, as a result of that circumstance, and in consequence of the national policy that each area must bear the cost of its own policing, Lancashire's ratepayers find themselves saddled with this enormous bill.

It is not the first time that this sort of thing has happened. In 1975 the trial of the Birmingham pub bombers was held at Lancaster, because it was felt that no unbiased jury could be found in the Midlands. That trial, too, was for obvious reasons surrounded by tight security, and the cost of that operation, too, fell on Lancashire, It came to about £200,000, and Lancashire alone was obliged to pay up, even though the proceedings had nothing at all to do with Lancashire.

A similar burden has been thrust upon the county of Hampshire. There have been a number of top-security trials at Winchester, involving offences committed far beyond the boundaries of that county, but Winchester Crown court is apparently well suited to the needs of tight security, and for that reason these trials have been held there. And, like Lancashire, Hampshire has been obliged to pay the costs of the security operations surrounding those trials.

Is it just and right that this should be so? When travel was difficult and crime generally local, it was obviously reasonable that the local community should bear the cost of bringing the malefactor to justice: hence the medieval concept of hue-and-cry, whereby every able-bodied person was required to join in the pursuit of the offender. But can such outdated ideas be maintained in an age when motorways criss-cross the land and villains from the capital can raid a town in the provinces and be back home in time for tea, when foreign capitals are only hours away by air and international communications make business of any kind as easy as picking up the phone? Crime, like any other big business today, is multinational, and I believe that the costs of fighting massive international crime—and that is what the "handless corpse" trial brought to light—should fall on the international community.

But I realise that that is some time away. What I will say for the present is that the costs of prosecuting major crime in this country should be borne at national level and not by the relatively small section of the community in which a crime may by chance happen to occur. I believe that there is a strong argument for establishing a national top security court where cases of this nature can be tried, the costs being borne out of the national Exchequer. So long as terrorism flourishes, both domestic and international, the need for such a court will remain, and I regret to say that I see no prospect of an end to it yet.

If I may digress for a moment from the Lancaster trial and security surrounding similar proceedings, let me point out that the county of Essex will presumably have to bear the costs of the huge security operation surrounding the hijacked Tanzanian airliner which landed, largely by chance, at Stansted the other week. Possibly even greater security costs will have to be met by those police authorities whose areas will be graced this summer by the presence of the Pope—a visit which, by any standard, must rank as a national and not a local event.

Let me return now to the particular question of who should pay the costs of the security operation at Lancaster last year. At the conclusion of the trial, Mrs. Justice Heilbron ordered that £1 million should be paid towards the costs of the prosecution by the man said to have been the "Mr. Big" of the international drug syndicate, in which the murdered Martin Christopher Johnson played such a significant part. He was Alexander James Sinclair, formerly known as Terry Clark, and by many other names, and was one of the five men convicted of Mr. Johnstone's murder. He will now remain a guest of Her Majesty for the next 20 years unless his current appeal is successful.

Mr. Sinclair is said to be a man of considerable substance, having amassed a fortune estimated at £25 million from drug racketeering within the space of four years. As I understand it, efforts are being made by the Government to secure the £1 million he was ordered to pay from his assets in Australia, believed to amount to £2 million, In New Zealand, too, Mr. Sinclair owns a partly completed house in the Bay of Islands which is said to be worth a quarter of a million pounds and he may have other assets there as well. There have been reports that he possesses further assets in Hong Kong, Singapore and Switzerland, but it has not so far, as I understand it, been possible to identify them.

If the Government manage to secure £1 million from Mr. Sinclair's overseas assets to go towards the costs of his prosecution, why should they not simultaneously secure from the same source whatever sum may be appropriate to cover the cost of security surrounding his trial? The Government of New South Wales are considering legislation to ensure that the illicit fortunes of drug racketeers are confiscated on conviction. It must be a matter of regret that there is, apparently, no similar provision under British law, but it is an idea that could profitably be borne in mind by the Minister and may be translated into the Criminal Justice Bill before the House. That legislation might also include provision for diligent scrutiny of those defendants of considerable means who apply for legal aid. There is no reason at all why a man who has accumulated vast wealth from crime should expect the British taxpayer to foot the bill for his defence. Let him pay it himself, he is better able to afford it than we are.

What I have said will not help the ratepayers of Lancashire in the short run. As things stand, they must dig deep in their pockets to find £410,000, and £50,000 for alterations to the court. I suggest that in these exceptional circumstances the Government should acknowledge some special responsibility. I am sure that the Minister is familiar with the Police Act 1964 and that he will bear it in mind. An ex gratia payment to the Lancashire police authority would be appropriate in this case. I commend that suggestion to the Minister and I hope that he will respond to it.

10.14 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Patrick Mayhew)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Preston, South (Mr. Thorne) for having raised an important matter for Lancashire and for the manner in which he has done so. He has given us an opportunity to discuss and, hope, clarify the arrangements for meeting the costs arising from major court trials.

It is appropriate to recall the facts relating to the discovery of the murder and the inquiry into what became known as the "handless corpse" case. On Sunday 14 October 1979, the body of a man was found submerged in water in a quarry near Chorley in Lancashire. Inquiries revealed that the body was that of Martin Christopher Johnson, a native of New Zealand who had been a member of an international drug smuggling syndicate. As a result of extensive police investigations into the syndicate's activities, raids were carried out on premises in London, Scotland and Lancashire. A number of persons were arrested and the extent of the syndicate's operation then became clear.

It was subsequently necessary for officers from Lancashire to visit Singapore and America; and they also went to Australia at the invitation and the expense of the Australian Government. As a result of those extensive investigations, 12 persons were committed for trial at Lancaster Crown court on charges of murder, conspiracy to import drugs, and conspiracy to supply drugs. Two witnesses were kept under close police protection while the murder inquiry was being conducted and six witnesses in all were afforded police protection until the trial had been completed.

The trial was a long one. It began on 6 January 1981, and concluded on 15 July. High security had to be provided throughout that period within the precincts of the court and for the trial judge, Mrs. Justice Heilbron, and, as I have mentioned, for witnesses. Without that high level of security it is probable that attempts would have been made either on the lives of witnesses or to effect the release of some of the accused from the court.

The trial proved to be the most expensive hearing on record and almost the longest for a murder case. At the end of the trial, three of the defendants were acquitted. Sinclair, the ringleader, and four other defendants received life sentences, and in all the convicted defendants received between them a total of 175 years imprisonment. Sinclair was ordered to pay £1 million in costs; Maher £10,000; and Russell £20,000.

The murder of Johnson was a horrible crime committed by ruthless men engaged in an international criminal operation, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said. Through the work of the Lancashire force we have demonstrated again that in this country we devote every effort to bringing to justice those responsible for such serious crimes. The police give this work the highest priority, and that is right. It is what the people of Lancashire, and the country at large would expect. The press give a good deal of attention to lurid crime, but less publicity to the successful conclusion of a case. Our clear-up rate for homicide in this country is high, well over 90 per cent. We would all agree that the fundamental point which we should welcome is that the criminal law has been enforced properly and rigorously in this difficult case.

Clearly the police must devote considerable resources to such serious crime investigations. The costs of the police operation—the investigation and security for the trial—were heavy and the Lancashire police authority incurred additional expenditure estimated at about £820,000. Responsibility for footing the bill rests with the police authority, under our constitutional arrangements for the control of police forces. Under the Police Act 1964, the duty for providing and maintaining an efficient police force for the area rests with the police autority. The Home Secretary has a general statutory responsibility under the Act to promote efficiency and must approve various actions of the police authority, for example the most senior appointments.

The 1964 Act provides for a partnership between central and local government on policing, which is reflected in the arrangements for financing the police service. Police expenditure qualifies for a 50 per cent. specific grant from the Government, and is taken into account for the rate support grant settlement. So the Government, by one means or another, are meeting about 59 per cent. of the additional costs incurred by the Lancashire police authority. Beyond that the Government cannot go. It is fundamental to our philosophy of policing in this country that the police are closely linked with their own community. They are not the paid agents of central Government, and, because responsibility for providing an efficient police force rests on the police authority, under our arrangements that authority must also be responsibe for police finance. That is what the existing grant arrangements seek to achieve.

Central Government pay 50 per cent. directly and a bit more on top by way of rate support grant. This is part of the Government's general responsibility for the maintenance of law and order in the country as a whole.

The Lancashire police authority, for reasons I wholly understand and with which I sympathise—they could not have been put more persuasively or fairly than by the hon. Gentleman on behalf of his constituents and the county that he helps to represent—asked for special treatment. It said that the Johnson murder was part of an international inquiry, as the hon. Gentleman has emphasised, and that is true. It said that the force was involved in an expenditure that would not normally be expected. That is true as well. It said that exceptionally strict security was necessary for the trial. That is also true. These unusual aspects, argues the police authority, put the costs of the case outside its control. I accept that they were not to be anticipated.

I also know that Lancashire had to carry the burden of some IRA terrorist trials in the mid-1970s, because Lancaster can offer perhaps the most secure court facilities in the country, but we cannot escape the fact that it is the duty of the police to maintain and enforce the criminal law, and from time to time police authorities may find themselves picking up the bill in their areas for policing commitments that are out of the ordinary.

There is some scope within mutual aid arrangements for police forces to assist others that have to bear the burden of investigations or security arrangements begun by another force. Indeed, Merseyside police provided Lancashire with free mutual aid for one of the IRA trials in 1975. But the Home Secretary has no power, nor would he think it right in policy, to pay an additional contribution to police costs in investigating the case or providing security arrangements. We cannot go beyond the grant arrangements that have been approved by Parliament.

Any proposal for 100 per cent. funding of an extraordinary commitment in the line of normal police duties would carry with it the implication that the Home Secretary should have some direct control of the police operation in question. That is a serious consequence, and not one that this House or the police authorities would or should welcome. This is something that neither the Home Secretary, the police authority nor the chief constable would find acceptable. Furthermore, there would be a very practical difficulty of defining which operations should attract special funding arrangements. Where should we draw the line?

As the hon. Gentleman has said, Lancashire's problem is not unique. Other forces have had to carry the burden of exceptionally long and complex criminal investigations. The Yorkshire Ripper investigation, the Panther case and Operation Julie are some examples. It is nothing new for the police investigation of an offence to develop into a case with nationwide or even international ramifications. The Johnson murder was a crime committed in Lancashire—unfortunately for Lancashire. It was the duty of the Lancashire force to investigate it and to try to bring the culprits to justice, which to its great credit it did most effectively. The trial of those responsible fell in the ordinary course to be held in Lancashire.

The investigation was a great credit to the force and to the people of Lancashire who sustained that force. It is no coincidence that that efficient force is locally administered. The corollary to local organisation and accountability is local financial responsibility, which must mean taking the rough with the smooth.

I regret, therefore, that there is little comfort that I can offer. If—and it is a big "if'—any of the £1 million costs that Sinclair has been ordered to pay is recovered, it will be for consideration whether the police authority has some claim on that sum. However, we must recognise that that is a long shot. Sinclair has no assets in the United Kingdom. The order must be enforced against his assets abroad. The order was made, but it is one thing to make an order and another to enforce it so that real cash comes to hand. First, Sinclair's assets must be traced and, secondly, a way must be found of realising them within the law of the country concerned. That is a complex legal exercise, which is fraught with difficulty.

I see that local authorities would be attracted to the idea of a central court where cases requiring exceptional security could be tried. They would be paid for out of public funds so that the burden did not fall on local ratepayers. However, that would run against the spirit of the Beeching report recommendation that justice must be locally available to the people and that the courts must therefore be locally based. There would also be the difficult question of who would be eligible for jury service in a central court. Cases requiring security at such a level are extremely rare and could not justify the establishment of such a court.

Characteristically, the hon. Member for Preston, South has introduced the matter in a fair and reasonable way. He has brought before Parliament the concern in Lancashire about the exceptional police costs connected with the Johnson case. I wish that I could go further towards meeting Lancashire's requests, but, taking account of specific grant and rate support grant, the Government meet about 59 per cent. of the additional costs falling on the police authority. I do not think that we could do more without upsetting the delicate balance between the Government and local authorities on the control and administration of policing in much more than purely financial terms. I have listened to what the hon. Gentleman said about recovering the costs from Sinclair. However, I regret that the prospects of that are not good. I should not say otherwise.

In the long run it would not be to the advantage of Lancashire or of the hon. Gentleman's constituents were we so to alter the balance that exists at present by virtue of Parliament's arrangements for the administration of policing in the country that greater control of police operations by consequence rested with the Home Secretary. That would not be to the advantage of Lancashire in particular or to the advantage of our country as a whole.

Therefore, although no one could have expressed his constituents' or his country's concern with greater fairness, objectivity or eloquence than the hon Gentleman, I regret that I must tell him that we cannot go beyond the arrangements that I have outlined. I wish that it were possible to do so. The speech that I have had to make tonight does not derive from any lack of sympathy with the problem or the burden that Lancashire has had to bear.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.