HC Deb 27 March 1986 vol 94 cc1085-91

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

Mr. Speaker

I draw the attention of the House to the fact that this debate started five minutes later than I had hoped. The first debate will therefore have to end shortly after 11.30 am. I hope that we shall make up time later in the other debates.

11.6 am

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford)

I preface my comments in this now shortened debate by saying that it is with considerable regret that I have to raise the issue of the police complaints procedure and specifically as it applies to the inquiry into the events surrounding the visit by the former Home Secretary to Manchester university at the beginning of March last year.

The Minister of State will be aware that in the past 12 months I and my colleagues have expressed our concern at those events. On 14 March 1985 my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) asked for an independent public inquiry into the actions of the police. The Minister responded by saying that he felt that the existing complaints procedure was perfectly satisfactory. Since then, the report of the independent inquiry set up by Manchester—the so-called Platts-Mills inquiry—has been published. The inquiry made serious allegations to which there has not been, to date, a proper answer from any of the authorities.

I am grateful for the fact that The Guardian has published over the past four days a series of articles which have brought the events up to date and given voice to further extremely serious allegations about events in the area policed by the Greater Manchester police.

The Opposition Front Bench endorses my attempts to seek answers to these serious allegations. I should like to get to the bottom of these allegations to ascertain whether we can restore the concept of justice in an area where many people would claim that it has not been forthcoming. We seek to offer protection to a number of the people who have been involved in these events in the past 12 months.

I do not want this debate to turn into a generalised police-bashing exercise. I am conscious of the fact that, if that happened, the Minister might be forced to take a defensive position. I do not want that. I do not intend to make generalised criticisms of the Greater Manchester police or of the chief constable, but I cannot shirk my responsibility to the area that I represent. Parliament cannot shirk its responsibility, and to that extent I have the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House. There are some serious matters that demand our attention.

I know the Minister well enough, after our contacts on different occasions, to know that he is extremely serious about wanting adequate policing of our cities. I know that he will take my comments seriously, and I say that with a degree of respect in advance of his reply to my speech. I do not think that the House wants anodyne answers, and I do not mean that unkindly. It would not be sufficient simply to refer us back to the existing police complaints procedure, because the allegations that have been made are now too serious simply to palm matters off for a further few months.

Individual policemen have been involved in events of an extremely sinister and serious nature. I am suggesting that the inquiry that has been established has been reluctant to take action on a number of matters, and some people interpret that as meaning that the inquiry is simply covering up the extremely serious behaviour of the individuals involved. I regret to say that I think that the inquiry to date has been incompetent in the prosecution of its task. In making that charge, I must tell the Minister that the whole of the complaints procedure is now also on trial.

This is the first inquiry under the new procedures, and is almost certainly one of the most important inquiries with which the procedures will have to deal for some considerable time. To an extent, I hope we can all accept that, whatever our different views on the matter, this is a matter of fundamental importance both to policing specifically and to the control that society exercises over that policing.

I do not want to dwell upon the events of 1 March last year, because, although they are still important, they have been out-distanced by subsequent events, and specifically they have been out-distanced by what has happened to at least two of the students involved. Over the past year they have suffered what The Guardian has described as a "systematic campaign of intimidation". They have been harassed and attacked. It can only be accepted that the harassment and attacks have been systematic and have led to the students living in a climate of fear. They have suffered appallingly over that period. It is our duty and that of the police to protect society and individuals against such fear. Manifestly, that has not happened in this case.

I should like to refer specifically to Sarah Hollis. I should not have referred to Sarah Hollis had her circumstances not been widely reported already in the press. She has suffered considerable anxiety, fear and brutal attacks over the past 12 months. She was publicly injured at the time of the former Home Secretary's visit to Manchester university and she made a formal complaint to her Member of Parliament at that time.

That was followed by what can only be described as the persecution of Sarah. Specifically, she was followed by marked police vehicles, and she claimed to have received anonymous telephone calls at different times of the day and night. While riding her bicycle, she was stopped by motorcycle policemen for alleged offences. Most important, her house was burgled in June. Various items were taken, including two witness statements about the former Home Secretary's visit and a number of her membership cards of various quasi-political organisations, for example, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Subsequent to that burglary, Sarah visited the then head of the police team inquiring into this matter, Deputy Chief Constable Reddington, of the Somerset and Avon police force. The Platts-Mills inquiry stated on the basis of Sarah Hollis's evidence: In the presence of Mr. Reddington, a witness statement was taken from her as to the events of 1 March, and the injuries from which she had suffered. This was done by Detective Inspector Edwards. On completion of the witness statement, Mr. Reddington indicated that he was aware that Sarah Hollis had other matters to raise. She mentioned the harassment and the burglary. Mr. Reddington began to shout at her, asking whether she was alleging that it was police officers who had done this. Not surprisingly she burst into tears and left the room. Inspector Edwards later confided to her that this was necessary to establish whether she was telling the truth about the burglary.

That alleged behaviour by the head of the inquiry is not suitable or fitting for an independent inquiry, and is unacceptable by any standards. Sarah subsequently went into hiding, with the result that when she came out of hiding the harassment continued. Finally, in January of this year, she was attacked and punched, with led to her receiving a severely injured eye. She believes that the person who attacked her was the man who had previously threatened her, and she believes that that man is a policeman.

Following that, Sarah withdrew all co-operation from the various inquiries taking place. It might be possible to argue that as Sarah has twice now withdrawn her co-operation, she is an unreliable witness. I would suggest that it is far more plausible to argue that she is a very frightened young woman.

I should now like to consider the case of Mr. Steven Shaw, another of those involved in the former Home Secretary's visit to Manchester. Steven spoke at a meeting shortly after the former Home Secretary's visit which discussed non-co-operation with the police inquiry and advocated co-operation with an inquiry set up by the police monitoring unit of the city of Manchester. Subsequently, Steven's thesis was stolen. He informed his professor at the university and Mr. Steve Wright of the police monitoring unit of the theft. However, he did not inform the police. Several days later he was picked up for speeding and taken to Longsight police station, where he was greeted by the desk sergeant who said that he, Steven, was the chap making allegations about his thesis.

It is obviously very serious for me to suggest that the police somehow knew about the thesis, as Steven had not told them about it. Steven suffered a horrific beating at Bootle street police station and was hospitalised. He did not co-operate with Somerset and Avon inquiry until earlier this year. Shortly after co-operating with that inquiry, Steven received another severe beating, with the result that he again had to spend some time in hospital. He was badly injured and no doubt the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman), Mr. Shaw's Member of Parliament, will make some comments about that.

There have been allegations that the police used unmarked police cars, but the registration numbers of the cars clearly showed that they were registered with the police and were used for surveillance. There is a serious allegation that the burglary at Sarah Hollis's flat was, to some extent, organised by the police. Mr. Frank Logan, who was convicted of that burglary, alleges, and has sworn an affidavit to this effect, that the police put it into his mind that he should rob that flat. Mr. Logan also said that at no time did he or his accomplice take any papers from Sarah's flat. That is a clear implication that someone else also entered Sarah Hollis's flat at the same time to obtain the witness statements.

The Avon and Somerset inquiry, as I have said, has started off on the wrong foot and has generated no confidence whatsoever. There is a degree of scepticism among the students involved, which is vindicated to the extent that when Frank Logan was questioned by Inspector Edwards about the burglary at Sarah Hollis's flat he was asked whether students had put him up to the burglary. The Guardian made the point that when Steven Shaw was beaten, the Somerset and Avon police were asked to look into the matter, and a senior officer from Avon and Somerset police told a solicitor recently that he was getting nowhere because he could not find a motive for the attack on Steven Shaw.

Statements of events at and around the time of the Home Secretary's visit were handed over by the independent inquiry to the prosecution, but not to the defence. That is an extremely serious charge of lack of impartiality, and has itself resulted in a complaint to the independent inquiry.

To date there have been no charges, no convictions and no obvious sense of urgency in relation to the attacks on witnesses. I have already commented on the relationship of Deputy Chief Constable Reddington with Sarah Hollis. In July last year he told The Guardian: We have not received any complaints about policemen persecuting students. As that was some months after he interviewed Sarah Hollis, that comment belies the true events.

Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

Does my hon. Friend recall the wide disquiet in recent months about incidents in my constituency, including the assault on five youngsters by police officers in Holloway? Does he agree that that clearly shows the need for a fully independent system to investigate complaints about the police?

Mr. Lloyd

I heartily endorse that view. I understand that my hon. Friend's constituents were invited to meet the Home Secretary.

In a letter to The Guardian today, Sarah Hollis concludes: When I read the article on Monday I was extremely frightened for my own safety as a consequence of its publication. Does the Minister agree that the same protection should be offered to Sarah Hollis and that he or his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary should agree to meet her?

I shall put a number of questions to the Minister formally at a later stage. Clearly the issues that have been raised are of the utmost importance. So far there have been no charges. We expect charges to be made, because the police do not have to wait until the independent inquiry is concluded. It is a matter of grave concern that the assaults on witnesses seem to have received inadequate attention from the police, who seem not to have pursued their inquiries with any diligence, leading not just to a certain cynicism among those involved, but to widespread concern that there is an attempt to cover up the truth. Parliament cannot allow such an attempt to succeed.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

As we are behind schedule, I hope that hon. Members will be brief so that we can make up the lost time.

11.22 am
Mr. Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd). It is typical of his courtesy and consideration that he informed me that he would be seeking to raise this matter today. I am grateful to him because one of the principal witnesses whom he mentioned is a constituent of mine.

I am second to no one in my admiration for the police forces of this country, who have to do a difficult, dangerous and occasionally dirty job, but that is not to assert that every officer necessarily acts with impeccable propriety on every occasion. There may be bad eggs in any profession or occupation. It causes me deep concern and disquiet that my constituent, having been invited for interview at a police station in Manchester, where he was interviewed for five hours, was stripped and searched and, he claims, assaulted. I understand that no doctor was present. Certainly my constituent had to be taken to hospital, where internal rupture necessitated two operations.

Subsequently, my constituent was interviewed at his home in my constituency by the Avon and Somerset police for 17 hours, involving the preparation of a 58-page statement. He was advised to return to Manchester to check some statements with witnesses, and he did so. On the second day following his return he was attacked on the street outside the place where he was staying by, he claims, two people who assaulted him on the first occasion. His nose was broken, a cigarette end was burnt into his face, he was hit with a bottle, trodden on and punched, necessitating his being taken to hospital for treatment, after which he had to be brought by ambulance to his home in my constituency.

Four days later, the Avon and Somerset police spent a further 10 hours taking statements from my constituent. Since then he has received two death threats—one by telephone and one by letter. I implore my hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that the fullest inquiries are carried out into these complaints. I believe that it is as much in the interests of the police forces of our country as of anyone else that the truth of these matters should be discovered.

11.25 am
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Giles Shaw)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) for raising this issue and to my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) for his contribution in respect of his constituent. As the House will recognise, the incident at Manchester university is the subject of a major inquiry currently under the auspices of the deputy chief constable of the South Wales police force and supervised by the Police Complaints Authority. I shall briefly put on record the chronology of events.

The incident took place on 1 March 1985. The first complaints were received by the chief constable of Greater Manchester in the early days of that month and the deputy chief constable of Avon and Somerset, Mr. Reddington, was appointed to investigate. He arrived in Manchester to start work on 11 March. As the House knows, the Police Complaints Authority was not established until 29 April, so the initial inquiry was under the previous arrangements. On 5 May a complaint which had only then been made to the Greater Manchester police was referred to the Police Complaints Authority to consider supervision of its investigation. The authority immediately decided to undertake supervision of that complaint and of all others stemming from events at the students union on 1 March.

I understand that 30 individual complaints were lodged formally with the Greater Manchester police about the conduct of police officers involved in the demonstration and that 68 general complaints have been made by members of the public. Statements from witnesses included references to a further 74 incidents which, in the view of the investigating officers, merit examination at the very least as criticisms of police conduct. In other words, 172 complaints or allegations are part of the inquiry for which the Police Complaints Authority is responsible.

So far, 540 civilian witnesses have made statements to the inquiry team. In addition, statements have been taken from 217 police officers and the team has not yet finished interviewing. That means a total of 757 witnesses. The whole inquiry has involved a team of 10 to 12 officers working full time since last March.

I wish to say categorically to the hon. Member for Stretford and to the House that there is no question of dilatoriness or attempted cover-up, but of total commitment to optimise the amount of investigation that must take place to try to reach conclusions on the basis of the broad range of complaints that have been registered. From September 1985, Mr. Reddington took up another post and was replaced as head of the inquiry by Mr. Vickers, deputy chief constable of South Wales.

The hon. Member for Stretford reasonably asks why no conclusion has yet been reached. The fault lies not with the officers or with the Police Complaints Authority, which is supervising the investigation very closely, but with the students who wished to make complaints about police conduct. As the hon. Member for Stretford said, after the incident Manchester city council decided to establish its own inquiry into the events of 1 March. That inquiry was set up under the chairmanship of Mr. Platts-Mills, QC. As I understand it, the students union in Manchester thereupon resolved that no student complainant about the events of 1 March should make a statement to the police investigation until the Platts-Mills inquiry had reported. In other cases, students involved in criminal proceedings declined—as they have every right to do—to give statements for the purpose of the inquiry until the criminal proceedings had been completed.

The result of all that was that, although the inquiry team was able to take statements from about 300 witnesses in the first six months of the investigation, none were from the most important complainants. In effect, the inquiry proceeded with one hand tied firmly behind its back at least until November last year. That was the major component in the significant delay, if delay it be, in the handling of the inquiry.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the serious incidents that have been the subject of allegations in The Guardian and have emerged from the inquiry—the alleged attacks on and harassment of Sarah Hollis and Steven Shaw, who is a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet. Here again the inquiry team has been hampered in not being able to take timely statements from those two people.

In Mr. Shaw's case, the inquiry team was initially working on the basis of evidence published in the report of the Platts-Mills inquiry and in the media. As I understand it, Mr. Shaw's solicitor was reluctant to allow him to make any statement to the investigating officers until 22 January 1986. Miss Hollis has still made no statement about her allegations of harassment to the inquiry team, which is thus unable to take its investigation very far forward at present. In order to assist it as far as she is willing, Miss Hollis has indicated that she would allow the team to have access to the evidence that she gave to the Platts-Mills inquiry, to which I have referred. That evidence rests, as I understand it, with the Manchester city council. The head of the inquiry team has twice written to the council seeking access to, in particular, Miss Hollis's evidence, but also to any other evidence relevant to these inquiries.

In addition, the Police Complaints Authority itself has written to the council making the same request. No reply has been received to any of those letters. I must ask the hon. Member for Stretford—for whom I have considerable respect—whether he can facilitate the inquiry and help it to come to a speedier conclusion by encouraging Manchester city council to respond positively to the request made to it, rather than suggesting—as I think he did—that the inquiry is getting nowhere fast and that the reasons must rest fundamentally with the provision of essential evidence.

I have read the letter in The Guardian this morning, in which Miss Hollis gives her views. I have carefully studied recent articles in The Guardian. They contain serious allegations. The allegations will receive the thorough investigation that they so clearly deserve, but that is difficult to achieve in the absence of full assistance from the subjects of the alleged complaints and, in particular, from Miss Hollis.

I note from Miss Hollis's letter published this morning that she regrets the publication without either her knowledge or agreement of matters discussed in confidence with another person. If The Guardian has any new evidence at all on these matters—and some of what has been published appeared some months ago in the Platts-Mills report—it should pass it to the Police Complaints Authority or to the deputy chief constable of South Wales who is leading the investigation. I understand that The Guardian claims that some information has been sent to the authority. I am not sure what it is, and I understand that it has yet to arrive.

The position in this inquiry is far from easy. The inquiry is of the utmost importance and the broadest scope. We intend to ensure that the Police Complaints Authority, with the powers that Parliament has given it, should produce a thorough and full investigation into every aspect of the complaints. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Police Complaints Authority has already been involved in major incidents. There were the inquiries into the shooting of the Shorthouse boy in Birmingham, into the shooting of Mrs. Groce and into the death of Mrs. Jarrett. The authority handled those major complaints in a thoroughly effective and professional manner.

I give the hon. Gentleman the commitment that he wishes me to give. I will personally see to it that the Police Complaints Authority does its job with the effectiveness, thoroughness and probity that Parliament demands of it. However, the hon. Gentleman should understand how difficult that is to achieve in the absence of clear statements of evidence, clear support of the allegations and, above all else, the opportunity to question those most critically involved in the major allegations.

The Police Complaints Authority has been established for less than a year, and I am bound to record that its record under the chairmanship of Sir Cecil Clothier demonstrates its successful determination to serve the public with fairness and dispatch.