HC Deb 25 July 1986 vol 102 cc910-8 1.58 pm
Mr. Ron Leighton (Newham, North-East)

The last words spoken in Parliament in this Session will be on the Metropolitan police. Had I been able to make the speech I wanted to in the debate on 11 July, there would have been no need to have applied for this Adjournment debate. That was not possible because there was not time. Members could take only a few minutes each, and some could not speak at all. That graphically underlines how woefully inadequate that annual debate is. It is farcical to pretend that it constitutes any form of proper accountability.

All authority in a democracy has to be legitimate and accountable. At present, the formal position is that the Metropolitan police is accountable to the Home Secretary, and through him to Parliament. That is the theory. The commissioner, when reporting to the Home Secretary, signs himself, "Your obedient servant". What has become clear to me as a London Member of Parliament is that this is hopelessly out of date and inadequate in modern circumstances. Parliamentary questions are frequently sidestepped, and no one can pretend that the annual debate we have had in recent years could conceivably constitute the effective police accountability we need.

We are obliged to ask: is there any accountability at all? It is certainly minimal as far as Parliament is concerned. There can be no doubt that things cannot be left like that. Parliament will have to devise another, better, more effective and more democratic system. Nor is there any reason to suppose that it will be against the interests of the police to have that, or that they would object. Doubtless we shall have to wait until after the next general election and a new Government for that.

Policing, particularly in London, is becoming increasingly problematical and complex in our modern society, especially since the huge increases in crime that we have seen since the Government took office and the collapse of their policies on law and order. Crime has increased by over 40 per cent. since 1979, including theft, burglary, violence to the person and criminal damage.

Last week, the report of the chief constable of Greater Manchester, Mr. James Anderton, said: Burdens on the police have grown against the background of alarming unemployment — of more telling significance, from the standpoint of law and public order, is the fact that the figure for long-term unemployment among"— what he called— the crime-prone younger age groups … ranges from 50 per cent. to a staggering 80 per cent. or more. He spoke of the difficulties where almost the entire population is out of work and living on social security. Unemployment, of course, cannot be blamed on the police. But they understand how it creates the conditions that nurture crime and disaffection. In "Thatcher's Britain", where bitterness and frustration are created among people living without hope in a society which rejects them, the fabric of that society can be ripped violently apart in disturbances, as we have seen. Those disturbances do not take place in the Home Counties or the wealthy constituencies of Home Office Ministers. As the poet Benjamin Zephaniah puts it, You don't riot if you have a nice job and home to come home to at night, You don't riot if you are well fed And unemployment does not pressure your head ֵYou don't riot if you have your share and by chance you have a lot You don't riot with a big bank account. With American Express you can always bail out. But some people cannot bail out. As "Thatcher's Britain" becomes more unpleasant, more violent and more brutal, there are those in authority who see increased use of the police as the remedy to social problems and industrial disputes. They want to transform the nature of the police service and to escalate its use of force. The talk is of armoured cars, water cannon, CS gas, plastic bullets and NATO helmets. Instead of the neighbourhood bobby or the citizen in uniform, we are to have a paramilitary force to suppress the symptoms of social stress caused by Government policy.

As my text for this part of my remarks, let me give the words of David Webb, the ex-commander in Handsworth with 27 years in the force, writing recently in the Police Federation magazine. He said: We can only succeed if we retain the co-operation and collaboration of the public. We must not allow political parties to divide the police from the community they serve, or use them in a reactive way to keep the lid on a society angered and frustrated by their neglect. He went on to say that he had campaigned to retain the traditional police role and that he thought that the vast majority of police officers preferred that.

However, David Webb is now out of the police and it is the paramilitary role that is being emphasised. Units now exist, equipped, trained and prepared to use unprecedented and quite frightening degrees of violence. They have already been deployed with great brutality against ordinary people such as trade unionists. That is a deplorable development.

It is not anti-police to discuss this. If we are to debate these matters rationally, it is absurd to do so in simplistic terms of being for or against the police. It is absurd to believe that the police, alone among our institutions, should be immune from scrutiny, investigation and accountabilty.

We must consider what sort of policing we want, how the service is run, its relations with the public that it serves and who pay for it, its effectiveness and to whom it is responsible. Only simpletons believe that to subject the police to scrutiny is anti-police. On the contrary, it is our duty as Members of Parliament to do so. The day that we are frightened to do so will be the day that we take a long stride towards a police state.

To say that the police never fall below the standard of perfection would be as silly as to say that they are all part of a conspiracy against the rest of us. I speak with feeling because I witnessed this paramilitary policing and excessive force at Wapping on the night of 3 May. I was shocked and appalled by what I saw and I have not yet recovered from that experience. I do not need to recapitulate all that happened on that night for I gave a full account to the House on 8 May. Suffice to say, the print unions had organised a May Day parade—as they had a perfect right to do — to greet those who had marched from Scotland in support of 5,500 of their colleagues who have been robbed of their jobs by Rupert Murdoch, a conscienceless industrial mugger if ever there was one.

There were two parades of men, women and children as is traditional. The police were waiting for them in ambush, already tooled up and raring to go. They needed no excuse. An incident occurred which lasted seconds. Immediately, and without any warning, the mounted police charged up and down the road called The Highway scattering everyone —men, women and children—who had come for a traditional May Day parade. They cleared the road and forced the people into Wellclose street and Wellclose square, where they constituted no conceivable danger to anyone. Then a squad of riot police who had been waiting in their outlandish paraphernalia appeared from Virginia street. They were just a few yards from me. They were in a "V" formation, evidently psyched up, jumping up and down with wild looks on their faces waving truncheons. Upon a signal, they charged into the people, knocking men, women and children to the ground indiscriminately. They regrouped and inexplicably, with no possible justification, repeatedly launched further baton charges causing many serious injuries and casualties among completely innocent people.

Most inexplicable of all, people were not allowed to leave Wellclose square. They were penned in, imprisoned by police, and subjected to repeated baton charges in a sickeningly brutal fashion for some two hours. I could not believe what I was seeing. I never thought that I would see anything remotely like it on the streets of London and I have not yet recovered from the shock. That is why I am making this speech. As a parliamentarian, it is my duty to do so.

I took a deputation, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore), the constituency Member, and trade union leaders to the Home Office about this matter on 8 May. We saw the Minister of State. He told me that he accepted that there had been severe damage and injury to innocent people. He also said that the police were only entitled to use minimum force. Well, they used very much more than that. I have a record of what was said at that meeting taken by one of my colleagues. Brenda Dean is a moderate and measured lady, not given to hyperbole. She is reported as stating: Ordinary law-abiding citizens have been alienated against the police. People were in fear of their lives from the activities of the police on the evening in question. The police had clearly over-reacted. Brenda Dean added that she was prepared to give eye witness evidence at any tribunal that was called. She said People do not take their children to an event that is determined to be violent. Brenda Dean said that she would welcome an independent inquiry into the policing of that evening.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene and I endorse every word that he has said as I was also there on 3 May. I was injured trying to escape from being run down by a police horse. Does my hon. Friend accept that it is the role of the police at least to be able, if necessary, to absorb a certain amount of intimidation or offensiveness from a crowd? I can tell the Minister that I saw a couple of missiles thrown at the police. The next thing that I saw was exactly as my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton) has described. There was an over-reaction. The police were wearing the kind of equipment that would allow them to absorb a certain amount of aggravation in a disciplined manner, before they reacted in the way that they did.

Mr. Leighton

My hon. Friend and neighbour is absolutely right. The police are now very highly paid professionals and we expect them to make an intelligent response, but their response that night was neither intelligent nor commensurate with what had happened and it was the police action that caused the problem. That is why I am making this speech today.

When the deputation met the Minister of State, the general president of the National Graphical Association, Bryn Griffiths, asked why the police kept people trapped in Wellclose square for approximately two hours. He told the Minister that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) had asked Inspector Goodall to remove his men so that people could leave the vicinity in a peaceful fashion but that the request was refused. Mr. John Geleit, London region assistant secretary of the NGA, informed the Minister that access for ambulances to tend injured demonstrators was refused and that one ambulance was attacked by a policeman. Additionally, he and the general president had seen a television crew attacked by the police.

The Minister of State said that it was essential that a report of the meeting went to the police, adding that the permanent secretary would be seeing the commissioner the same afternoon to give a verbal report. The Minister stated that the unions had the right to demonstrate but that he did not feel it right to set up an independent inquiry and that his intention would be to have an internal inquiry.

We must make it clear that there is no confidence whatever in any internal inquiry. Why can we not have a public inquiry? What are the Government and the police afraid of?

Chris Robbins of SOGAT made the point that in relation to a police inquiry it is most difficult to identify police officers without numbers or means of identification. The Minister asked specifically whether the riot police had numbers on their uniforms and was told that they had not. The Minister said that for police officers to be on duty without numbers being shown was against regulations and that they would be told to put that right.

Those are just a few of the points that came out of the deputation and I am grateful to the Minister of State for receiving us so courteously. It was agreed that there would be a meeting between union leaders and assistant commissioner Wynn-Jones. The meeting took place, but what was the result the following Saturday? The Guardian headlined its report on 10 May: Wapping Peace Deal Batoned Down". The report stated: Mr. Michael Britton, chief marshal of the pickets, who had been present at the talks earlier between Brenda Dean, General Secretary of SOGAT '82, and senior police officers, found himself pulled to the ground and stood on by police officers as he tried to tell his men to stay on the pavement and remain calm. 'It would appear certain officers had no control over what they were doing' he said. 'The agreement does not seem to have filtered down to the policeman on the line' As I have said, there was no proper accountability by the Metropolitan police to Home Office Minsters, who clearly had little idea what was going on. It was clear that the Minister of State had not known that no numbers were worn by the riot police and he seemed genuinely shaken and concerned at what we had to tell him. The Home Secretary has no inkling of what has been happening at Wapping. In the debate on 8 May, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield gave an accurate eye-witness account of what happened on 3 May, but the Home Secretary did not believe it. The Home Secretary's face registered incredulity, he began to laugh and then, with a gesture as if to say, "This cannot possibly be true," he ostentatiously walked out. From his position of invincible ignorance of what had occurred he simply could not believe what he heard, but his duty was surely to listen and to learn. Where is the accountability to Parliament if the Home Secretary does not want to know and does not even listen to a Privy Councillor?

If Ministers do not know what is happening on the ground, what about the senior police officers? Commissioner Newman was certainly not present on 3 May, but what about assistant commissioner Wynn-Jones, whose main contribution in return for a salary of more than £32,000 lies in the manipulation of propaganda? The following day, the Sabbath, he held forth at a press conference at which he is reported as saying: The police have been the victims of a determined and undeniably pre-planned attempt by many people to inflict as serious injuries as possible on unprotected officers". If he was talking about the printing unions, he was either telling deliberate lies or did not have a clue what he was talking about. I was so astonished by his trumpetings that I wondered whether he could possibly have been at the same event that I witnessed. Accordingly, I put down parliamentary questions asking where he was positioned at 10 pm, 10.30, 11 pm, 11.30 and 12 midnight on 3 May. What did I discover? At all those times, he was in Leman street police station. In other words, he was not on the spot at all. He had not witnessed a single thing. He was riot there. I was. He did not know what he was talking about.

I should like to raise another serious matter. I was approached by a London official of the NGA who told me something disturbing. I said that I was disturbed about it, and that if he wanted me to take it up, he must put it in writing because it was so serious. I have his letter here, and the Minister of State has had a copy. He refers to the police attending Wellclose Square at 9.30 a.m. on Sunday May 4th … the School Caretaker had witnessed the police carefully removing rocks and boulders from the centre of Wellclose Square from a contractors pile of such rubble. Clearly this was to be used in the Press Conference headed by Deputy Assistant Commissioner W. Jones later that day. More seriously, he witnessed the removal of a spear type railing from outside of the school at about the same time. As this railing was the only one removed he was surprised to see it displayed by Mr. W. Jones at the Press Conference on television later that same evening. That school caretaker is prepared to give testimony to that effect. His name is David Boyle and he is the schoolkeeper at St. Pauls, Wellclose square, London El. That is a serious matter, and should be looked at. It is one of the things that should be examined at a public inquiry.

Commissioner Newman, in his public order review, says that the situation often calls for the skills of a field commander dealing with public disorder". I note the military terminology. Whoever was field commander on 3 May should be sacked. He should answer for himself at a public inquiry. There is absolutely no public confidence in an internal inquiry. In a parliamentary question, I asked who was in charge of the riot squad that night. I was not told. Why not? Why should we not know who was responsible for that intolerable behaviour? Why should he not be required to answer for himself?

I also asked who gave the order that the people penned into Wellclose street and Wellclose square should not be allowed to leave while they were being repeatedly baton charged. I was told in a parliamentary answer that no such order was given. Whoever drafted that reply simply did not know what he or she was talking about. That reply is either a demonstration of ignorance or a cover-up, because I was told on the spot that night by police that no one could leave because of their orders. So, in practice, parliamentary questions as a method of getting information about the police are a farce and completely ineffective. In the interests of everyone, including the police, there must be better and more effective accountability than that. Things went badly wrong that night. The lessons should be learnt and not swept under the carpet. I have in my possession a letter to the Home Secretary from my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) who is present. I was going to refer to it, but there will not be time. My hon. Friend has not received a proper reply.

Very, very much more than minimum force was used. Truncheons were used, not in self-defence, or to resist violence, but indiscriminately, and not just on the body but on the head as well. That was action outside the law. The riot police breached the law, and the peace; they did not defend them.

But has anyone been disciplined? What was the result of the internal inquiry? Is it not plain that no one has any confidence whatsoever in an internal inquiry? The only conclusion that one can come to is that on these occasions the Met is a law unto itself, and currently accountable to no one at all. I say that that is not acceptable, and must be changed. I also say that the riot squad acting as it did should never have been deployed against a May Day parade of men, women and children. That was a wicked and grossly mistaken act. Those responsible should be brought to book.

The present position is indefensible and cannot be allowed to continue. Far-reaching reforms must be made in the interests of both the public and the police. The only reasonable, sensible and practical solution is a democratically elected police authority within a framework set up by Parliament. If that is right for, say, education, it is right for the police service. Any possible scaremongering about "political" control is absolutely unconvincing. The Met is under political control now — that of the Home Secretary, who does not even come from London. Would those people say that Parliament should not be under political control, or the Government, or the Army? That would be ludicrous. As generals, admirals, air marshals and civil servants are all subject to elected accountability, why on earth should senior policemen be the sole exceptions? There is no public support for that. The sooner we get this elected accountability the healthier it will be for all concerned, and I intend to press for it energetically.

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

The hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton) who has been using his rights as a London Member to deploy arguments in the House about policing in London has taken 20 minutes or more to do so which makes it difficult for me to respond to the points that he made. However, it is an eloquent testimony to the rights of Back Benchers and London Members to air their views about police accountability and police operational procedures, and it is an eloquent testimony to the efficacy of the present arrangements.

The hon. Member for Newham, North-East is arguing for a different form of accountability. As he said, he wants to see an elected form of accountability to replace that which Parliament has bestowed upon the Home Secretary for upwards of 150 years. It is a system which has been in place, with the support of all parties in government, from both sides of the House, for a considerable time. Moreover, it is a system of accountability which was recently endorsed by the report of the Public Accounts Committee, which has just been published. It said: In view of the special constitutional and operational responsibilities of the Metropolitan Police for policing the capital and seat of Government, and their additional national and international functions, the essential focus of accountability should be to Parliament not local authorities. I hope that the hon. Member for Newham, North-East will bear that in mind.

The reason for the special relationship between Parliament and the metropolis and between Parliament and London Members lies in the nature of London itself. I do not want to go too far into that, because it is not a matter for discussion or dispute.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)


Mr. Shaw

I am sorry, but I shall not give way.

The fact remains that the accountability that is offered to Members of Parliament through the Home Office and the Home Secretary is very substantial in relation to Metropolitan police matters. In fact, the force is open to more direct questioning by Members of Parliament than is any other force. The Home Secretary and Ministers through debates in this House, and the commissioner through his report, are opening an accountability for scrutiny and public examination in the full light of media exposure which is frequently denied to many other persons who wish to expose policing matters in their provincial force. The Metropolitan police as a whole are very much exposed to full scrutiny on this matter.

I remind the hon. Gentleman of the steps that have been taken in that regard. In the Home Office we have the Home Secretary, who is the police authority for London, and we have other Ministers, who spend a significant proportion of their time on Metropolitan police matters. We have a deputy secretary in charge of the Police Department, one under-secretary, one assistant secretary, who have a considerable part of their responsibilities addressed to the Metropolitan police, and seven officials, including a senior principal, working exclusively on Metropolitan police matters. All those people are available to handle issues raised by hon. Members in the House.

A considerable number of questions have been asked in the House in recent weeks, as the hon. Member for Newham, North-East knows. We have had 76 parliamentary questions in one month to 18 July alone. Many of them are on detailed matters affecting the Metropolitan police. Therefore, it is wrong to impugn accountability, as the hon. Gentleman has done. He may prefer a different form of accountability, but the fact is that in London there is massive accountability through this House, the Home Secretary and in other ways.

Problems arise when local authorities set up police committees claiming to exercise responsibilities that they do not possess. The police cannot lend credence to such claims. The police may talk to any individual or group in the community about practical matters. However, police officers are right to be careful that they do not involve themselves with committees claiming responsibilities and roles which they do not possess in ways which obscure the proper structures of accountability or undermine the role of the consultative groups which Parliament has so recently established.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that with the development of consultative groups under section 106 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 there is now widespread in the Metropolis a much broader-based forum than councils alone can provide to ensure that policing is rooted in the local community. When the riots took place in Brixton last year the local police consultative committee met for three and a half hours to debate the police role on that occasion. The position in Brixton was restored to normal much sooner by the substantial exposure to police activities at that committee than might have been the case without it. I am confident that such an approach is important in establishing the accountability that the hon. Gentleman wishes to see.

I certainly agree to consider some of the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised separately. He asked what report would be made from the internal examination on the events at Wapping on Saturday 3 May and I shall respond to him on that. Regarding the wearing of numbers, not only did the commissioner remind all divisions of the necessity for doing that subsequent to the meeting to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but I went to Wapping to examine for myself whether the police were carrying out that instruction, and I saw that they were. I agree that that important matter was raised by the hon. Gentleman's delegation. The fact that he brought the delegation and that he could discuss the matters as he did is another potent example of the proper accountability of the Metropolitan police to hon. Members and to Ministers reporting to the House.

The wide range of Metropolitan police responsibilities, crime, the pattern of policing, and mobility stretch London wide. Therefore, I accept that there could not be any sensible arrangement between individual boroughs or any form of police arrangement leading from one borough to another. Policing has its ingredients London-wide. Therefore, it is right that from the centre within the Home Office there should be a London-wide responsibility which can he made available to the House and to hon. Members who represent London boroughs.

Hon. Members have influence and the right to consult, delegate and question the system for information, but they do not have control of the police service itself, other than through the controls provided by the Home Secretary to Parliament. There is no control of the police service through police authorities in the provinces either. It is a tripartite structure which rests fundamentally on the Police Act 1964, which gives operational independence to chiefs of police, including the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis. That operational responsibility is not subject to the control of either the police authority outside or the direct control of the Home Secretary for the Metropolitan police. Operational decisions rest with the commissioner, where they belong. Those operational decisions lie at the basis of the concern expressed by the hon. Gentleman.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that in terms of accessibility and responsibility to the House and in relation to the London-wide nature of the responsibilities which the Home Secretary carries, we have a proven system which we have absolutely no intention of changing.

Mr. Tony Banks

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As the three hon. Members who represent Newham are present, would it be in order to wish you a happy, most peaceful recess? Long may we catch your eye and remain vigilant on behalf of the people of the London borough of Newham.

Mr. Speaker

I accept that as being wholly in order and I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman has said. Indeed, the proper role of all hon. Members is to be vigilant on behalf of their constituents.

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