HC Deb 07 March 1985 vol 74 cc1280-6

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

11.40 pm
Mr. Roy Mason (Barnsley, Central)

The aim of this debate is to obtain justice for those coalminers who, during this long dispute, have been arrested, photographed, fingerprinted and either discharged or taken to court and acquitted. They are all innocent men who now want to be fully satisfied that their names are clean and that their characters are without blemish: in short, that they have no criminal record. All of them, to date 1,416 men, have the right to witness the destruction of their photograph and fingerprint records.

According to the Attorney-General's figures, which were given to the House on 25 February, another 2,456 cases remain to be heard. There could therefore be hundreds more such as I have described. Why has all this come about? I believe that it is because of indiscriminate mass arrests. No fewer than 9,750 people have been arrested. The police, perhaps fearing riotous assembly—having spent a few years in Northern Ireland I well know the meaning of it— have dispatched snatch squads to take out the front men. They are not necessarily agitators, but men who happen to be in the front line of the mass picket. Indiscriminately, scores per day have been picked up and processed like sausages. That is one method of defusing the situation. There has then been conveyor-belt justice at almost every stage of their journey through the courts.

Home Office statistics supplied by the police provide substance to the claim that blanket arrests have been made among legal pickets and without proper evidence. Of the 7,223 arrests recorded until 9 October 1984, 1,354 miners were released from police stations without being charged. National and provincial newspapers have been full of stories of miners being taken to court in their hundreds, and being cleared. The Sheffield Morning Telegraph for 10 October 1984 ran the headline: "Miners cleared of unlawful assembly" and continued: Seven miners accused of offences during a blockade of the M1 in north Derbyshire were acquitted by a jury yesterday after a fortnight-long trial. The jury at Derby Crown Court took more than four hours to clear the South Yorkshire miners who faced 13 charges, including the centuries-old offence of unlawful assembly. The Guardian of 9 February 1985 reported: Striking miners cleared of picket charges. Eight striking miners were acquitted by a jury yesterday of unlawful assembly during the pit dispute … The defence claimed that the men were arrested as a result of a police order to take prisoners rather than because of unlawful behaviour on their part. The Guardian of 27 February 1985 reported: Arrests questioned as pickets go free. The police yesterday dropped charges of unlawful assembly against 23 South Yorkshire miners among 87 arrested during a mass picket at Harworth colliery in north Nottinghamshire last August … Mr. Craig"— the men's solicitor— said that since August the men 'have been prevented from picketing except at their own place of work. Now the cases are being dropped wholesale. It makes the defence, the defendants and the union wonder why they were arrested in the first place. It suggests that the powers that be decided to use wholesale bail conditions and wholesale arrests as a device to keep people off picket lines."' The Yorkshire Post of 27 February 1985, under the heading "Picket cases dropped", said: Police were yesterday accused of using mass arrests, and rigid bail conditions to prevent picketing after charges of unlawful assembly against 21 South Yorkshire miners were formally dismissed. Their solicitor, Mr. Alan Craig, said: This case is likely to make legal history in Nottinghamshire. I know of no other case where men facing such serious charges have had them all dropped. It is completely extraordinary. Provincial paper after provincial paper said the same. The Sheffield Telegraph, in the heart of the Yorkshire coal field, under the heading "Unlawful assembly charges are dropped", referring again to those 21 south Yorkshire miners, said: Mr. Craig criticised the circumstances in which the men were arrested. 'They were battle-charged, chased and eventually rounded up in a field, arrested willy-nilly and brought to Mansfield court in the dead of the night to face extremely harsh charges. So there we are—mass arrests, it cannot be disputed, and all innocent men. Those police methods were suspect, are suspect, and must be challenged in future, especially by an inquiry. Therefore, one can understand the National Union of Mineworkers' call for an amnesty.

Of the 9,750 people arrested, 1,416 were acquitted of all charges, and there may well be many more. The nature of the charge was that 4,089 of them were likely to cause a breach of the peace—they were stopped on the Queen's highway. We all remember the nonsense of the Dartford Tunnel, when 1,682 men were arrested for obstructing a police constable—old-fashioned picket-line pushing, a shove at a bobby, resulting again in mass arrests. These were not criminal acts, but just the normal activities of picketing now well known and established in Great Britain. Yet many hundreds of these men have been sacked by the NCB, their future ruined, thrown on the dole — and in many mining communities that means for good.

These police methods of mass arrests were the cause, and that is why there is legitimacy in the demand for an amnesty. There is no doubt that the methods of strike policing will have to be reviewed. Although the Government may well feel happy at the outcome, there is no doubt about the bitterness in our mining villages and towns over the methods used against the miners. It will take time for the wounds of the conflict between our mining communities and the police to heal. An inquiry only into what lessons the police can learn from the strike is of no use to the NUM, or indeed to society at large. There is need — indeed, an urgent need — for an independent public inquiry into the whole of police activity during the past 12 months of the coalmining dispute.

This is also true of clearing the records of the 1,416 innocent men. Solicitors on behalf of the men have written to me, and I shall quote from one of the letters: The taking of fingerprints by the police is not of course, peculiar to the miners arrested in the NUM/NCB dispute but the strike has highlighted the present unsatisfactory situation. Upon arrest all miners were automatically finger-printed by the police. The men were not allowed to see a solicitor at this stage and were not, until later on in the strike, aware that they could object to having their fingerprints taken. Most miners were charged with minor offences of police and highway obstruction and threatening words and behaviour (e.g. shouting `scab')—the sort of offence where fingerprints are not needed… It is worth noting that there is no such thing as a photograph order—despite this when taking fingerprints the police also take a photograph of the defendant… A number of Chief Constables have stated publicly that they would like to have the whole populace finger-printed. By fingerprinting everyone who is charged (even though that person may later be acquitted) this helps the police a little nearer this goal. The widespread taking of fingerprints by the police is an infringement of civil liberties. Parliament has not yet legislated that the whole country must be fingerprinted and it is, therefore, wrong for the police to endeavour to achieve their ends by this back door method. That is just not good enough. Miners were photographed, some of them twice, and fingerprinted without permission. It is all wrong. Nor have they been given the opportunity to see their photographs and fingerprint records destroyed. That is wrong, too. They are on file in a police station. They might also be on the police national computer, staying there for ever if there is not destruction of their records. None of those men and their families will have a chance of getting a credit card, of being able to borrow money or of buying goods on hire purchase. They will be listed as a credit risk, men with a criminal record.

What of the senior police officers asking the Home Office to allow the use of the police national computer to store a special register of criminal incidents in mining areas? The Association of Chief Police Officers is interested in new categories of offences and may want to use the computer register to identify new categories of agitators — the political agitator and the industrial agitator. Hence the first national list compiled with help from the chief constables in the coal mining areas of political and industrial agitators. If the records remain of some of those 1,416 innocent men, and are so recorded on the national computer, they will be blackballed for life.

The Home Secretary is, I believe, in sympathy with my objective. Indeed, in a letter to me on 4 February 1985, he said in answer to representations from Owen Briscoe, the general secretary of the Yorkshire area of the NUM: At present there is no legal requirement that fingerprints and photographs should be destroyed if a person is acquitted or the case not proceeded with, nor is there any requirement that a person should be given the opportunity to witness destruction." But the right hon. and learned Gentleman went on to say: It is, however, general police practice at present to destroy fingerprints and photographs if a person is acquitted or his case is not proceeded with and also to allow him to witness destruction. In the light of those words, I now ask the Minister and the Home Secretary to make sure that the men can see justice done and that all chief constables are asked to send all the acquitted men's records to the police station nearest their homes, inform them, and allow them to go and see their records destroyed. That will be the first step to restore a good, healthy working relationship in mining communities, between police and public, between bobby and miner, and will create an atmosphere in which progress can be made on an amnesty between the area boards and the local unions. By that means the police can play a positive part in bringing peace in our coalfields. The Minister and the Home Secretary can give a lead. I hope that they will take this opportunity of doing so.

11.54 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Giles Shaw)

The right hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Mason), who is both courteous and well-informed on these matters, has raised a serious issue to which I hope that I shall be able to give a reasonably serious response. He has brought the debate before the House at a time when a major dispute—the longest-running dispute of all time in United Kingdom industry—has now come to an end. It is appropriate that this evening we look at steps that should now be taken to return both policing and the industry to the normal terms of reference to which the right hon. Gentleman, and I am sure the entire House, would fully subscribe.

I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the dispute had seen some of the largest police operations ever, but operations against some of the most intimidatory and vicious tactics ever. Every police force in England and Wales has either provided or received aid and on occasion as many as 8,000 officers have been deployed on mutual aid.

I must use this occasion to pay tribute to those who have ensured that intimidatory practice — not normal picketing, as I am sure the right Gentleman would agree —did not succeed in preventing from doing so those miners who wished to exercise their right to go to work. Given the scale of the violence and the intimidation and the number of pickets involved in the dispute, the police have had to use their powers to arrest offenders and, where possible, to prosecute them.

The extent to which the police have had to have recourse to the use of powers is an indication of the very scale of the violence they have met. As the right hon. Gentleman said, nearly 10,000 people have been arrested in connection with the dispute; nearly 8,000 have been charged; over 5,500 have been dealt with by the courts. Of the cases dealt with to date there have been some 1,400 acquittals as the right hon. Gentleman pointed out. Of course, there are cases, including some of the most serious charges, still to be heard by the courts. As these figures show, the fact of arrest by no means indicates certainty of prosecution. Let me briefly describe the courses which can be taken after someone is arrested.

To arrest a person for an offence, the police must have reasonable suspicion of the commission of an offence for which a power of arrest exists. When a person has been arrested, the police have three broad choices: they can take no further action against him; they can caution him formally; or they can charge and prosecute him. To issue a formal caution the police would need to be satisfied of three factors: that there was sufficient evidence to justify prosecution; that the person admitted the offence; and that he consented to the issue of the caution. To charge someone, the police would have to be satisfied that there was sufficient evidence to justify the prosecution. It is important to make the point that a higher standard of evidence is required for prosecution than for arrest.

The Attorney-General's guidelines on criteria for prosecution lay down the test that the evidence should be such that there is a greater prospect of conviction than acquittal; it must also be in the public interest that the person should be prosecuted. But even when a person has been charged it is still possible that the charges will be dropped at a later stage.

Perhaps I should also mention at this point the future role which the Crown prosecution service will have. Legislation to create this service will shortly be coming before this House, having completed its passage in another place. The new service will have the duty to review cases where prosecutions have been initiated by the police; if will have the power to alter or drop charges and it will have responsibility for the conduct of the case in court.

Now let me turn to some of the specific points that the right hon. Gentleman raised. Perhaps I could relate the sequence of events to the records which are made by the police. When a person is arrested, he will usually be photographed and fingerprinted. Often two photographs may be taken, particularly when a large number of arrests are made at the same time. In such cases, one will be a Polaroid photograph taken of the arrested person and the arresting officer. The purpose of this photograph is to avoid any doubt about which officer arrested which person. The other photograph would be a conventional photograph taken for local criminal records. There is at present no legal provision governing the photographing of suspects, but there is no bar to the police taking photographs so long as they do not use force.

The police will also usually take fingerprints. The purpose of this is to link the person with any previous criminal record and to provide for the future a definite link between that person and his conviction, should that be the result of the case. There is at present no general power for the police to take fingerprints, but if a person who has been charged refuses to allow his prints to be taken, the police may apply to a magistrates court for an order to take fingerprints.

There are at present no legal obligations on the police as to what they must do with fingerprints and photographs if a person is cleared or if his case is not proceeded with. But it is, as the right hon. Gentleman acknowledged, standard police practice that fingerprints and photographs should be destroyed in these circumstances. Furthermore, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary made clear to the right hon. Gentleman, it is usual for the police to allow the person to witness the destruction of these documents if this is requested. That latter facility was, I understand, temporarily withdrawn in Nottinghamshire because of the administrative pressure placed on the police, but I can say that as from the end of the dispute the force has reverted to the practice of acceding to requests to witness destruction. This will apply not only to persons acquitted after the end of the dispute but to any other cases where fingerprints and photographs are still with the police.

I said that at present there was no legal requirement on the police to destroy fingerprints and photographs, or to offer the facility to witness the destruction of these documents. But there will be such a requirement in the future, with the implementation of the main provisions of the new Police and Criminal Evidence Act at the start of next year. Section 64 of the Act will require that fingerprints are destroyed if the person is cleared of an offence or if he is not proceeded against and not cautioned. The Act will give a specific right to the individual to witness their destruction if he so requests. The police will be required to keep the fingerprints for a set, but short, period of about a month, in order that the person concerned has the opportunity to witness their destruction. After that period they will be destroyed by the police.

That requirement will be repeated in the code of practice on identification. The code will also govern the taking of photographs and provide similar obligations and duties on the police in relation to photographs as in relation to fingerprints. Failure to comply with the provisions of a code will render a police officer liable to disciplinary proceedings. I believe that underwriting these obligations and duties by law backed up by disciplinary sanctions is a significant and important step forward, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will accept that, and will regard these provisions at least as progressive and helpful in relation to the problems that he has outlined to the House.

The right hon. Gentleman raised the issue of the right to witness the destruction of fingerprints. That subject was clearly given substantial attention during the dispute, and tonight's debate will obviously give it further publicity. I have no doubt that the NUM will take whatever steps it considers necessary to keep its members informed of their rights. Again, the code of practice will formalise the suspect's rights, by requiring those fingerprinted or photographed to be told of their right to witness destruction at the time when the fingerprint or photograph is taken.

I do not see that it is necessary, beyond that, to require the police to go through the process of highlighting those rights on each and every occasion after acquittal or after the decision not to proceed, whether or not it is of the slightest interest to the person concerned. We already place substantial burdens on the police, and I am reluctant to do more where it is not specifically needed.

The question of returning the prints to a station at which it would be convenient for the person concerned to witness destruction is, however, a different matter. I fully take the right hon. Gentleman's point that an offer to witness destruction at the other end of the country would contain within it a pretty powerful disincentive against taking up the offer. I have no doubt that, if a chief constable in one part of the country received a request to witness destruction from somebody living in another part of the country, and the prints had not already been destroyed, he would consider sympathetically any suggestion that they be forwarded to a police station that was more convenient for the person concerned. I am sure that the police will accept the sort of proposition that the right hon. Gentleman has put to the House, and I shall certainly draw that point to the attention of the Association of Chief Police Officers. I have reason to believe that it will agree to accept it.

I come to the question of records. The records at Scotland Yard are kept only in relation to recordable offences. These are offences which, broadly speaking, carry liability to imprisonment. Local records are kept in relation to a wider spread of criminal offences. Let me explain first what happens with the national records. When a person is arrested for a recordable offence, the local police notify Scotland Yard of the fact of his arrest. If the person has no previous convictions, a new file is opened in his name and a Criminal Records Office number is allocated to him. If the person is subsequently not prosecuted or is acquitted, that file and the CRO number are destroyed. If, on the other hand, the person does have a previous criminal record, the entry in respect of the offence for which he is arrested has marked against it clearly that he has been acquitted, or the offence has not been proceeded with. I understand that similar arrangements apply in relation to local records.

Let me also say something about the police national computer. The criminal names index on the PNC is, in effect, no more than an index to the central collection of criminal records at Scotland Yard. Although steps are in hand to computerise conviction records, these are not in operation at present. A person will not be identified on the PNC as having a criminal record unless he has a record at Scotland Yard and a CRO number. I have explained that a person with no previous record and who has been acquitted would have his file at Scotland Yard and the CRO number destroyed. At the same time, his CRO number and name would be removed from the police national computer.

I have explained the circumstances in which police records are destroyed and those in which they are kept. The allegation that those records which are kept will be disclosed to credit brokers and other such people is totally without foundation. Police records are confidential and their improper disclosure is an offence against police disciplinary regulations. If the right hon. Gentleman has any evidence to support his view that police information has been disclosed, he should report it to the appropriate chief constable concerned.

I hope that that detailed explanation of the position will satisfy the right hon. Gentleman that the systems and procedures for the retention and destruction of police records are adequate and that they take account of the concerns that he expressed.

I do not believe that it would be right to make any special provision or arrangement in respect of criminal records related purely to offences connected with the miners' dispute. Safeguards are already there and further protection is at hand when the Police and Criminal Evidence Act is implemented.

Moreover, there is no reason why criminal records of offences committed during the dispute should be treated in any different fashion to criminal records in relation to any other criminal offences. Those who have criminal convictions will, however, benefit from the protection which the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act will afford them after the passage of the requisite time. In the case of minor sentences, the rehabilitation period will be relatively short. In the case of heavier sentences, particularly sentences of imprisonment, the rehabilitation periods will be much longer, and a conviction which results in a prison sentence of over two and a half years will never become spent.

In conclusion, I make a simple point. Those who are cleared of criminal offences have a right to expect that police records will not be kept. Those records will not be kept. But those who are convicted of criminal offences can expect that there will be a police record kept on them. That is one of the prices to pay for behaviour which led to their conviction in the first place.

I hope that what I have said will do two things. First, I hope that it will assure the right hon. Gentleman that proper steps will be taken to deal with the specific issues he raised about destruction and the prospects of witnessing such destruction. Secondly, I hope he will agree that, in providing such encouragement to chief police officers to make this an easy proposition now, that will provide a modicum of assistance to achieving the right lion Gentleman's overriding concern, which is to bring a sense of healing and community back into those areas which have been so heavily afflicted by this ghastly dispute.

I think that he will also agree that, in the longer term, the provisions of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act will provide the statutory backing for the kind of process he would like to see.

Mr. Mason

I am obliged to the Minister for that sympathetic and understanding reply.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes past Twelve o' clock.