HC Deb 25 April 1986 vol 96 cc634-42

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

2.48 pm
Mr. Graham Bright (Luton, South)

I am grateful for this opportunity to bring to the attention of the House the tragic death of my constituent, Mr. John Williams. He was one of the many young men and women whose lives and careers have been cut short by the criminals who exploit the spread of drugs in Britain. It is impossible to measure the harm that has been caused to the families of such victims. Their suffering, which I know is understood throughout the House, makes deterrent action by the police, the prosecuting authorities and the courts essential.

Had it not been for the remarkable courage of John Williams's family and, in particular, of his mother, in bringing a private prosecution for manslaughter, the criminal justice system would have failed completely. The role of the Director of Public Prosecutions in these events has to be clearly justified and explained.

The circumstances of John Williams's death were particularly distressing. During a visit with friends to a flat in Dumfries court, Luton on the evening of 2 September, 1982, he was persuaded by the occupant, Gary Austin, to try an injection of a drug called Palfium, which is usually given in tablet form to relieve the pain of cancer sufferers. Austin gave him this injection at about 7 pm, John Williams collapsed almost at once and, according to the medical evidence, died shortly thereafter.

For the rest of that evening, Austin prevented any expert help being sought by those present in the flat. Some of them even went out to local bars and an off-licence. It was not until 11 pm, that Austin decided to have the body removed. It was left in the street outside propped against a wall, where it was found at about 11.15 pm by the ambulancemen Austin had summoned under a false name.

On arrival at the Luton and Dunstable Hospital, John Williams was found to be dead.

The subsequent police inquiries revealed that the drugs given to him had been stolen from a chemist's shop in Crewe by a man called Peter Panko. Both Panko and Austin were arrested and charged. The post-mortem conducted by Dr. Tan, the pathologist, revealed the presence of Palfium in John Williams's blood, admittedly at a relatively low level compared to that of patients taking the drug therapeutically.

This evidence, it is worth stating, was sufficiently convincing for the jury at the inquest held in June 1983 to bring in a unanimous verdict of unlawful killing. But although Panko was convicted of theft and of supplying the drugs at Bedford Crown court in March 1983, Austin was charged only with possessing dangerous drugs and with theft. The two men were sentenced to terms of five and three years' imprisonment, respectively. To the surprise of the Bedfordshire police and to the amazement of Mr. and Mrs. Williams, the Director of Public Prosecutions decided that no other charge could be brought. It was a decision to which he was to adhere throughout until he was forced to change his mind.

I have set out the facts as clearly and as objectively as I can. Of course, I accept that criminal prosecution can take place only when there is sufficient evidence to make conviction likely. No one's interests are served by poorly mounted prosecutions resulting in inevitable acquittals.

The disquieting feature of this case is that no public action was taken until new evidence had been privately assembled and leave obtained from the magistrates' court to bring a rare private prosecution for manslaughter. There are, therefore, some extremely serious questions about the conduct of this case which have to be answered if public concern is to be satisfied.

First, there is the issue of the evidence from the post-mortem conducted by Dr. Tan. Presumably, what he told the inquest jury—that John Williams's death was due to heart failure and that this did not occur spontaneously in a healthy person—was also told to the police. Logically, to use his own words, there had to have been an unnatural cause of death. He was perfectly clear about the presence of Palfium in John Williams's blood. No other possible cause of death was mentioned.

Mr. Peter Corderoy, the senior scientific officer from the Home Office laboratory at Aldermaston, testified that deaths had been recorded from the injection of relatively small amounts of the drug. There was some published evidence already available from the work of Dr. Patrick Toseland, the specialist at Guy's hospital, to show that deaths had occurred with levels of Palfium in the blood even lower than that recorded in John Williams's case.

I am bound to ask my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General to explain what happened when the DPP and his officials first looked at the medical evidence. Which experts, apart from Dr. Tan and Dr. Toseland, were consulted and what was their view of the reason for the death? Was it ever suggested to or by them that John Williams had taken Palfium on the morning of his death? If such a suggestion was made, who put it forward? The police's inquiries and the evidence at the inquest, so far as I am aware, revealed nothing of the sort. Were they aware of the distinction between the oral method of administering the drug which, due to its slower passage into the blood stream, permits higher levels to be tolerated and the more dramatic effects of injecting it?

There is a further point that I must raise here. In a letter to me on the 12 December 1984, my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General, explained that the DPP reached his decision not to prosecute Gary Austin in 1982. The police officers dealing with the case at Luton did not learn of this until 11 March, 1983. Austin had been remanded in custody since his arrest because it was thought more serious charges might be preferred. This delay in informing the police has to be explained.

I have been equally concerned to learn that Austin was informed by the DPP then—and again in September 1983—that no prosecution for manslaughter would occur. The failure, moreover, of the DPP to offer any rationale for his decision to John Williams's parents at that time was quite mystifying. It left them without hope of justice. Their anguish and distress was inevitably increased by the inquest proceedings in June, 1983. The verdict of "unlawful killing" returned by the jury convinced them that criminal proceedings against Austin were possible.

I know that the DPP looked at the case again, that he took further advice from counsel and that he adhered to his original view, that, without better scientific evidence, no prosecution could succeed. But simply informing Mr. and Mrs. Williams and their solicitor that his unexplained decision stood was hardly satisfactory. No explanation of the need for a more specific link betwen the injection of the drug and John Williams's death was offered until December, 1983, six months after the inquest and at least a year after the DPP's original decision. Once again, I find that delay exceptionally difficult to understand.

Every parent will know why Mrs. Williams refused to accept the DPP's decision. In fact, she was prepared to go out and pay for the necessary inquiries to be conducted by medical researchers. One expert had already informed her that he was convinced that Palfium had killed her son and that Austin should have been charged. By July, 1984, more specific evidence was available. Dr. Toseland had been able to analyse how the injection of the drug paralysed the brain centres controlling the heart very shortly after it entered the bloodstream. Taken in tablet form, it opperated much more slowly and much higher levels could be tolerated. That was the key piece of work which ultimately unlocked the case.

Naturally, that analysis and the supporting views of Professor Spector, the head of the department of pharmacology at Guy's hospital, were forwarded to the DPP. Both men were prepared to state their views in public. I know that the Luton police and the DPP's representatives heard the new evidence directly from Dr. Toseland at a conference in the town on 2 Ooctober, 1984. What is more, Dr. Tan, the pathologist who had conducted the post-mortem, had been contacted by Dr. Toseland and was prepared to state that, in the light of his research, there could have been no other cause of death than the injection of Palfium. Professor Spector himself expressed the identical view in a further conference at Guy's hospital on 22 October 1984. Both Dr. Toseland and Professor Spector were sure that the possibility of John Williams having taken Palfium on the morning of his death was irrelevant.

The DPP's subsequent observations that no proceedings could be brought against Austin because the new evidence was not good enough to link the injection of the drug to the victim's death make remarkable reading. What or who was his authority for this view? Even when Dr. Tan's letter to the Luton coroner in April 1985 with its explicit statement that it was now his oponion that the death of John Williams was the direct effect of an intravenous injection of Palfium came into the DPP's hands, nothing was done. If his opinion was sound enough for the DPP to rely on in not bringing a prosecution in late 1982 or early 1983, why was his revised view not valid enough to start one in 1985? I cannot accept that an undertaking given on the basis of medical knowledge in 1983 not to prosecute was still binding when new medical evidence was available.

It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to understand why the professional judgments of the pathologist who conducted the post-mortem and of two of the country's leading experts in this field of medicine were rejected by the DPP and his colleagues. I have no doubt that they were afraid that a prosecution would fail. Why this was their view has to be explained.

There is equally no doubt that they were wrong. It is greatly to the credit of Mrs. Pauline Williams that she has the courage, after all the setbacks that she had suffered in her struggle for justice, to bring her private prosecution against Gary Austin. The Magistrates before whom she made her application were convinced that there was a case to answer. It was her largely unaided efforts and the testimony of her expert witnesses that resulted in the case going to trail at the Crown court. The jury there brought in a unanimous verdict of guilt against Austin. I cannot think of a more complete vindication of one person's determination to see justice done, however inadequate the sentence passed.

The struggle that Mr. and Mrs. Williams have endured to ensure that the criminal justice system worked has won them great respect, but they have had to pay a high price for it. They have sacrificed their time and money and a great deal of effort to get it. Mrs. Williams has been attacked and threatened. It is a matter of absolute principle that these costs—for legal representation at the inquest and in the magistrates' court, for the costs of transcripts, photographs, telephone bills and scientific tests, for the cost of letters, envelopes and stationery—should be met from public funds. So, too, should the charges of her solicitor. Is there any possibility of some compensation for Mrs. Williams for the thousands of hours that she has spent in marshalling the evidence. Whatever charges are incurred in altering the terms in which the coroner's inquisition recorded her son's cause of death ought also to be met from public funds. This is a matter on which her judgment was not only better than the DPP's but on which she was proved absolutely right.

Unfortunately, this tragic case has revealed the weaknesses of our system more clearly than its strengths. As long as drugs are available from criminal sources, other families are in danger of suffering similar tragedies. That is why it is so important that those who have the responsibility for initiating prosecutions exercise it correctly. There were grounds enough for questioning whether the right decision was made by the DPP in the autumn of 1982. It is alarming that nothing—not the verdict of the inquest jury, not the new medical evidence supplied by Dr. Toseland and his colleagues, not even the pathologist's explicit change of view, could persuade the DPP to change his mind. The outcome shows that his judgment was mistaken. Had it not been for the existence of the right to bring a criminal prosecution, justice would never have been done to John Williams or his family. The failure of the responsible public authorities to act must be fully explained and justified if our confidence is to be sustained. That is the fundamental issue that the death of John Williams raises.

3.2 pm

The Solicitor-General (Sir Patrick Mayhew)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Mr. Bright) on securing this opportunity to raise an important matter in the House. Although my hon. Friend has very properly been concerned with the matter over a long period, in the interest of his constituents, it raises wider considerations. My hon. Friend's presentation of the matter today has again been a model of fairness and care.

I agree strongly with my hon. Friend's opening remarks in which he condemned the evil nature and consequences of the criminal exploitation of drug abuse in this country. The death of his young constituent John Williams in 1982 constituted a tragic addition to the grim toll. Parliament has provided stern penalties for those convicted of offences of such a nature. The strict enforcement of the law by means of prosecution in every proper case is a policy to which the Director of Public Prosecutions rightly attaches the highest importance. That is a policy to which the Director of Public Prosecutions rightly attaches the highest importance. In that approach he has the full concurrence of my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General. The public would rightly expect nothing less. No one need expect a lenient attitude on the part of the DPP. I shall come in a moment to the evidence in this case that was available at material times to the Director to place before a court, including the expert medical evidence bearing on the crucial question of the cause of John Williams's death.

I shall, of course, answer my hon. Friend's question, but, first, I must acknowledge gratefully what my hon. Friend fairly said in an early passage in his speech. He said: Of course, I accept that criminal prosecution can take place only when there is sufficient evidence to make conviction likely. That is correct, and it forms an important part of the guidelines for prosecutors published by the Attorney-General in February 1982 and deposited in the Library.

Justice must be even handed and it would be a cause for complaint if the formidable prosecuting power of the State were to be exercised against a citizen where, to take a purely hypothetical example, it was thought useful to clear the air by means of a public trial. In all criminal proceedings arising from an unlawful killing, the onus rests on the prosecution to prove guilt. The standard of proof required is that guilt shall be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Therefore, the prosecutor has initially to assess the likely outcome of a prosecution by reference to this high standard. In the case of John Williams's death, a finding of guilt against Gary Austin demanded that the prosecution should prove beyond reasonable doubt that death was caused by Austin injecting him with Palfium. I have already described this as the crucial factor, and from the outset the prosecutor's difficulties centred here.

My hon. Friend asked when the Director's officials first looked at the medical evidence. The professional officer assigned to the case had three meetings with Dr. Tan, the pathologist who carried out the post-mortem examination, the last of which was also attended by counsel. These meetings took place on 23 November 1982 and on 26 January and 23 February 1983. On each of those occasions Dr. Tan was pressed as to whether he could say that the cause of John Williams's death was the injection with Palfium. He repeatedly replied that he was unable to say what the cause of death was. He could only affirm that the mode of John Williams's death was pulmonary oedema.

The Director consulted a further expert, a question asked by my hon. Friend, additional to Dr. Tan and Dr. Toseland and that was Mr. Neville Dunnett, an expert in toxicology and drugs at Aldermaston. On the basis of the expert evidence available to him at that time, the Director concluded that a prosecution was likely to fail for lack of the necessary proof of causation.

My hon. Friend referred to Mr. Peter Corderoy, the senior scientific officer at Aldermaston. I have seen a transcript of his evidence at the inquest. He said: It is impossible to say whether the amount of drug in a 5 or 10 mg tablet if taken by intravenous injection would prove fatal or not. I cannot say that it would or would not prove fatal.". He did however say, after dealing with the ill-effects to be expected, that a person could acquire a tolerance to Palfium, and that factor too had relevance to the Director's decision. It brings in a further question asked by my honourable friend: was it suggested that John Williams had previously taken Palfium on the day of his death?

Statements had been made to the police by Mark Clews and Anthony Denton providing strong evidence that that indeed had been the case.

The Director concluded, on a review of all the circumstances that a prosecution would be likely to fail and he so informed the police. There was no delay in informing the police of the Director's first decision. There was a final meeting with Dr. Tan, which counsel attended on 23 February 1983, and after that counsel advised. His advice is dated 2 March 1983. The Director then considered the advice, and informed the police of his decision by letter, dated 14 March. I apologise to my hon. Friend that a letter to him from me gave a misleading impression in this respect.

My hon. Friend has asked why Mrs. Williams was not informed of the reason for the Director's decision. The Director, in a letter to the chief constable of Bedfordshire, who had reported the facts of the case to him, gave his reasons for concluding that a prosecution for any offence relating to the death of John Williams would not succeed and advised the chief constable against such proceedings. That letter was not confidential, but it is the Director's policy not to publish reasons for his decisions, especially where he has decided not to prosecute. I think that for reasons of fairness, that policy is correct. I can very well appreciate, however, the feelings experienced by Mrs. Williams and her family, which my hon. Friend has described, and I much regret them.

I can understand only too readily how those feelings would have been exacerbated after the inquest's verdict in July 1983. The coroner's jury was evidently satisfied as to causation. That, however, did not relieve the Director of the responsibility of applying the standard of proof that would be required in a criminal court. The transcript records Dr. Tan as having been asked: As far as your post mortem is concerned, is it possible for you to bridge the gap between the administration of an injection and the death as a result of pulmonaryoedema? Dr. Tan replied: "It is not possible". The Director's opinion, having further consulted experienced counsel after the inquest's verdict, accordingly remained unchanged.

It was not until 1984 that any significant advance was made—to the knowledge of the Director—in the state of medical knowledge about the actions of Palfium. My hon. Friend has asked whether the Director was aware of any difference between the effects of oral and intravenous administration of that drug. In 1983 no such information was available to him.

It was not until after Dr. Toseland's letter to Mrs. Williams, dated 16 July 1984, reached the DPP in September of that year that he became aware of any difference. Dr. Toseland's views, expressed in that letter, were far from firm conclusions. He said: If it can be shown that this was the first time your son had been injected with Palfium then it can be stated he would have no protection from a first administered dose, and that the amount injected is only as important as the speed of the injection. I have already referred to the evidence in that regard.

Dr. Toseland conferred with a member of the Director's staff on 2 October 1984, but at a conference with Professor Spector on 24 October much stronger views as to causation were put forward. I believe that it is fair to say that from 24 October 1984 onwards—that is, two years after John Williams's death—there was a prima facie case against Austin. Why, then, were proceedings not begun?

I must here refer to another factor that was now faced by the Director. When the decision has been taken not to prosecute a suspect, it is normal for the suspect to be so informed. I believe that to be fair. The Director has taken the view—I believe it to be generally fair—that once a suspect has been so informed, that decision should not remain open for reappraisal and possible reversal, however long a period may elapse. In very rare cases where there is still a practical possibility that further facts sufficient to incriminate the suspect may be uncovered, the decision is expressed to have been taken only on the present state of the evidence. I can tell my hon. Friend that the Director has agreed to revise his practice in this regard. If, on a review of each relevant case, it appears that the public interest would be served by a prosecution in all the circumstances, this policy will be overriden. However, I must emphasise that that action will be taken only in exceptional circumstances and I think that my hon. Friend would understand that.

In the case of Austin, the suspect had twice been informed that he would not be prosecuted—the second time being after the inquest verdict in 1983. The Director considered that his policy as to double jeopardy should be observed in the case of Austin after a careful review of the circumstances.

No one can fail to salute the determination of Mrs. Williams to secure a criminal trial and the courage with which she pursued that aim. Once the magistrates' court had found that there was a case to answer and had committed Austin to trial, the Director stepped in and took over the case. The outcome is well known.

I would now like to consider the question of Mrs. Williams's costs. The matters outlined by my hon. Friend have formed the subject of a claim for costs which was taxed by the clerk at Luton magistrate's court. It is fair to say that Mrs. Williams's costs, as claimed in the magistrates' court; either have been paid in full or will be paid in full. It is also fair to say that I know that there is an outstanding claim for costs in relation to the time which Mrs. Williams has spent on preparing the case. Apparently, some 6,000 hours was spent on that. The courts have ruled that a private prosecutor cannot be reimbursed out of central funds for time spent on the preparation of a case. The Director has no funds for the making of such payments, nor is there any precedent for doing so. I regret that I can accordingly offer no prospect of reimbursement.

However, with regard to the question of the costs of the application to the High Court, in connection with the amendment to the death certificate which Mrs. Williams has also requested, I am able to say that the Attorney-General has agreed to act for Mrs. Williams ex officio and therefore no costs will be incurred by her in respect of that application.

I have referred to the change in the Director of Public Prosecution's future policy. I only wish to add that, as a safeguard, no reversal of a decision not to prosecute will take place without the express authority of the Director or Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions.

In conclusion, these decisions are always exceptionally difficult for the Director and his staff to take. In this case, the decisions were taken after the most careful and conscientious deliberation and they were taken for the reasons that I have given. I am extremely grateful for this opportunity to explain the background to the Director's decisions in this most painful case, which has caused Mrs. Williams and her family such understandable anguish.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes past Three o' clock.