HC Deb 22 October 1987 vol 120 cc1015-22

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

10.1 pm

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge)

I bring to the House the case of Mr. John Lang, a resident of Gateshead, who was wrongly imprisoned for 14 months. The tragic story of John Lang's imprisonment began coincidentally when he arrived in London on the same night as another tragedy was taking place—that which occurred in the Heysel stadium in May 1985. That was two and a half years ago, and John Lang has still not recovered from the experiences that he has suffered since that date, and he probably never will.

He came to me, although I am not his Member of Parliament, at a time when his Member of Parliament, Bernard Conlan, now retired, was ill. It was agreed by Mr. Conlan that I should pursue the case. That was in November 1986. Yet here we are today, 11 months to the day since I first wrote to the Home Secretary about the case, with still no sign that the matter is to be amicably resolved. Notwithstanding the intervention of the general election, the matter could have been resolved before now and, as a consequence, the need for the debate avoided.

Incidentally, I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East (Ms. Quin), who is now Mr. Lang's Member of Parliament and who has taken a great interest in the case. My hon. Friend has kindly agreed that, because of my involvement in the case, I should pursue it.

I first wrote to the Home Secretary about Mr. Lang's case on 21 November 1986. On Second Reading of the Criminal Justice Bill on 27 November 1986, I also raised the general matter of innocent people being held on remand for long periods. I refer the Minister to the Official Report for that day. I asked the Secretary of State whether such persons were also victims of crime.

Following that intervention, I received what I believed to be an encouraging letter, dated 16 December, in which the Secretary of State recognised that, in raising the point, I had a specific case in mind. But I did not receive a considered reply to that specific case until 28 April 1987, 23 weeks after first having raised the matter with the Home Office. In that letter, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor), whom I now see dealing with matters relating to defence and disarmament—I hope that his briefing on that matter is a little better than it was on this one—said: I have carefully considered all the circumstances of Mr. Lang's case". He went on to state: on the information available to me, I do not think that this is a case in which the Home Secretary would be justified in authorising an exceptional payment from public funds. The Minister was wise to include the qualification on the information available to me because, despite 23 weeks of research, the information on which he based his decision was full of inaccuracies as I shall explain more fully later. I wrote to the Minister again and was told by letter on 21 May 1987 that the case was being given "further consideration". To date I have not received any notification that a decision has been taken, although I have been informed in a letter to me dated 1 October that a decision is expected soon.

I hope that the Minister is now in a position to give a full reply and announce his decision to the House tonight. However, before he does so, I should explain the full background of the case to the House. Like so many other unemployed men from the north-east, John Lang travelled down to London to search for work. Like many others in his position he had no money to spare for expensive hotel accommodation and had with him the name and address of an acquaintance of his brother whom he hoped might be able to offer him a bed and the man was able to do so. The next morning Mr. Lang left the house to look for work. He returned at the tail end of a police drug raid on the house. Naturally, Mr. Lang was questioned about his involvement with the owner of the house and with the drug ring that the police were investigating.

It should have ended there, but Mr. Lang found himself arrested and held in custody because he had the same name as his brother, Lang, who was involved in the drug trafficking, and because he had in his pocket the telephone number of a paging service that was used by the leader of the drug ring. That number had also been given to Mr. Lang by his brother in case he needed help in finding accommodation.

If I were to turn out my pockets, like many other hon. Members, I would find scraps of paper on which my secretary had written names and numbers. However, I would not expect at any time that the possession of those bits of information would automatically implicate me in the activities of the people to whom they referred, nor would I expect to be automatically included and implicated in the activities of my family simply because we share the common name.

Unfortunately, the police took a different view. Given the scale of the drugs ring and certainly given the scale of the drugs haul that was cited in the original police submission, it was more or less inevitable that the bail applications of all those involved should be refused. The charges that were eventually brought concerned 32 kg of cannabis with a street value of £100,000, whereas the orginal submission cited 37 kg of cannabis with a street value of £200,000.

Mr. Lang was held in custody, protesting his innocence from May 1985 until July 1986. I do not need to spell out the devastating effects that Mr. Lang suffered as a result of spending 14 months in four prisons. However, add to that the fact of Mr. Lang's illiteracy, which did not emerge until July 1986, and the fact that during his imprisonment his wife divorced him, sucessfully applied for the custody of their daughter and the transfer of their house to her sole name—those were complex legal documents that Mr. Lang coud not read, understand or deal with — and quite literally Mr. Lang's life was in ruins.

When John Lang's case came before the court he was the only defendant — there were 10 in all — to be completely exonerated, but his life was in ruins. His claim for compensation was refused, although the Home Secretary has the power to pay compensation where a person has been completely exonerated at trial. I refer to the letter to me from the Home Secretary dated 16 December 1986. In a written answer to me on 29 November 1985, the right hon. Gentleman stated inter alia: facts may emerge at trial, or on appeal within time, that completely exonerate the accused person. I am prepared, in principle, to pay compensation to people who have spent a period in custody or have been imprisoned in cases such as this"—[Official Report, 29 November 1985; Vol. 87, c. 689] John Lang's case is, indeed, such a case, yet his claim for compensation was rejected by the Minister.

The reasons given by the Minister in his refusal to pay compensation are contained in his letter to me of 28 April 1987 and are based on what can be described only as an appalling catalogue of inaccuracies. The inaccuracy about the inflated size and value of the drugs haul makes its appearance, Apparently the Home office have quoted from the original police evidence, not from the facts that emerged at the trial. The Minister's letter also says that the raid took place when Mr. Lang was seen arriving at the house. The truth is that Mr. Lang arrived back at the house after his search for work and at the tail end of the raid. The Minister claims that the lady of the house implicated Mr. Lang in her statement. That evidence, which was so confused and garbled that the court dismissed it, merely referred to the "Geordies" who occasionally stayed at her house. One of the few facts clear from her evidence is that she did not know John Lang's name.

Here we have a case where a man is in prison because he has the same name as his brother, because he can be called a Geordie and because he had in his pocket a piece of paper with a telephone number on it. The circumstances are too flimsy to be called evidence and Mr. Lang was rightly exonerated.

There can never be real monetary compensation for the devastation that John Lang suffered, but if there is any justice in the system there should be at least some attempt to make recompense. To deny the validity of his case for compensation, especially on the basis of gross inaccuracy and misinformation, is to perpetuate the original wrong against him.

While I make the case for the payment of compensation to John Lang, his main preoccupation is the hope that his case can somehow prevent other innocent people from being held for so long on remand. He has been injured by a system which is supposed to protect the innocent and he believes that all fair-minded, right-thinking people will be concerned and appalled, not only that such a case can happen, hut that not so much as even an apology is presented when it does.

There is no question here of setting a precedent which might prove an obstacle to sympathetic consideration. The Home Secretary has stated in the House and in writing to me that in cases such as the one I have described he would be willing to accept that compensation is appropriate, that is, where facts have emerged at the trial that completely exonerate the accused person. That is the position in this case.

I can cite what might be taken as a precedent set by the Government when they recently awarded compensation in the form of ex gratia payments to six service men serving in the Mediterranean area who were held improperly in custody. I wish them well, but I argue that John Lang deserves equal treatment.

I hope that tonight the Minister will be able to say that the Government recognise that mistakes can be made and were made in this case, that consideration is being given about how long periods on remand can be avoided and that John Lang is entitled to the recognition that he has been badly wronged.

10.13 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. John Patten)

I have listened with considerable interest, care and concern to the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland). He has certainly spoken of his concern with the case of Mr. John Lang and his claim for compensation to cover a period which he spent on remand in custody. It is not for me to pass judgment on other hon. Members, but from my observation the hon. Gentleman has been more than assiduous in his representations on behalf of Mr. John Lang, who is not one of his constituents but whose case he took willingly upon his shoulders.

I am glad of the opportunity of this debate to set out the position in some detail and to try to advance the issue a little further. I see that the mistake has attracted considerable attention in the region. Mr. Lang's Member of Parliament, the hon. Member for Gateshead, East (Ms. Quin) is present, as are the hon. Members for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter) and for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam) and others whom I know well from my visits to the region. I appreciate the concern that this has caused.

It is important to reiterate the facts for the record. They are that John Lang stood trial with seven others at the Newcastle Crown Court in May 1986. The charge against Mr. Lang was one of conspiracy to supply controlled drugs. The jury was unable to reach a verdict and a re-trial was ordered. Finally, on 30 September 1986 a second jury returned a verdict of not guilty in respect of Mr. Lang and he was therefore discharged. I understand that he had been on remand in custody from the time described by the hon. Gentleman.

On 27 November 1986 the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge first raised in the House the question of compensation for Mr. Lang in respect of the hardship he had suffered as a result of his remand in custody for the charge of which he was eventually acquitted. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary subsequently wrote to the hon. Gentleman giving an outline of the arrangements for the payment of compensation to persons wrongfully convicted. Those arrangements were fully described to the House in a statement by my right hon. Friend on 29 November 1985. The hon. Gentleman, in his remarks tonight, I think has shown that he is fully aware of what that statement said.

It would be otiose of me to go through the details, as they are clearly on the record. Therefore, I turn to the substance of the facts of the case. It is important that the facts are on the record so that any decision that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State makes can be judged against that record.

During 1985 police officers in the north-east mounted an operation to trace and arrest several prominent criminals who were engaged in drug trafficking on a large scale, something that hon. Members on both sides of the House abhor. Inquiries revealed that drugs were being smuggled into the United Kingdom for distribution. Henry Perry, the person thought to be principally involved, had connections in Tyneside, London and with known drugs dealers on the Continent.

During the course of the inquiry information was received that a large quantity of cannabis had been deposited in a house in London NW1. The house was occupied by a man and woman from Newcastle. A search warrant was issued. Officers of the drugs squad kept observation on the house throughout the evening of Wednesday, 29 May and the morning of Thursday, 30 May 1985. I understand — I think there is no doubt about it—that Mr. Lang was sighted at the house.

The police entered the premises and spoke to one of the occupants. They searched the premises and found what by any standards is a large quantity of cannabis—32 kg. I gladly give the hon. Gentleman an apology because in a letter sent to him in April, to which he referred, it stated that the amount of cannabis found in the house was 37 kg. That was incorrect, and I apologise for that. It was 32 kgs. The 32 kg of cannabis were thought by the police to be part of a larger total consignment of approximately 50 kg that they were after.

As the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge said, Mr. Lang returned to the house while the police were there. He was spoken to by the police and told them that he had come from Gateshead to look for a job in London with, as the hon. Gentleman said, not much money in his pocket and with all the problems of illiteracy and those other issues that were clearly described by the hon. Gentleman on Mr. Lang's behalf.

Mr. Lang at first denied staying at the house overnight but later agreed that he had. He said that he had met in a pub the occupant of the house who had agreed to give him a bed for the night. He had left the house that morning to telephone his then wife. He denied any knowledge of the cannabis. The police subsequently found on Mr. Lang a piece of paper on which was written the number of the telephone paging unit that was believed to have been used by Henry Perry. I hope that everything that I have said thus far is consistent with the account that the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge understands to be the fact.

Mr. Lang was then arrested for being concerned in the supply of cannabis and subsequently he stood trial with others similarly charged. At the first trial the jury was unable to reach a verdict and a second trial was ordered. Mr. Lang was subsequently found not guilty. As a matter of record, his co-defendants either pleaded guilty or were convicted.

To turn from the facts of the case to the consideration of the claim made on behalf of Mr. Lang, the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge submitted a claim for compensation which was considered carefully in the light of information obtained and on the basis of the criteria outlined in my right hon. Friend's statement of 29 November 1985. It was concluded, on the basis of the criteria, that an ex-gratia payment would not be justified. It was considered that there was no evidence of serious default on the part of the police.

The fact that Mr. Lang had been acquitted at the trial was weighed carefully, but, as hon. Members will readily appreciate, an acquittal at a trial is not necessarily always tantamount to complete exoneration. That has often been the position in the past. It appeared from the facts available that the case fell within a category where it could be said — this is obviously debatable and one of the issues between the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge and the Home Office—that the prosecution had failed to sustain the burden of proof. Accordingly, it followed that the claim did not attract compensation within the terms of the statement of policy made by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. The hon. Gentleman was informed of this decision on 28 April 1987 in the letter to which I have already referred, which included the inaccuracy about the weight of cannibis for which I have apologised.

The hon. Member urged my right hon. Friend to reconsider the matter immediately afterwards, as he told us this evening. He pointed to what he considered to be inaccuracies in the facts outlined in the letter conveying the decision. It was agreed immediately that the case should be re-examined in the light of these further representations. Extreme care is give to these cases and the documents involved are examined in detail. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the case has been under examination since that time. We have been making strenuous efforts to bring the examination to a conclusion but we have been hindered by difficulties in obtaining certain documents that we have been striving to secure.

There is a further factor to which the hon. Member did not refer. I have learnt only recently that solicitors acting on behalf of Mr. Lang have lodged a formal complaint against some of the police officers involved in Mr. Lang's case. This adds an entirely new dimension to the consideration of a claim for compensation. Hon. Members will be aware that a complaint against one or more police officers is an extremely serious issue. The hon. Member understands that the statutory procedure for the investigation of complaints against police officers is completely independent of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and other Home Office Ministers. My right hon. Friend has no authority in such matters.

It will be readily appreciated from what I have said already about the payment of compensation in cases that involve police default that the findings of an independent investigation into complaints could be of direct relevance to and could affect the final decision taken on Mr. Lang's claim. That is because there is new material to be considered. I have therefore decided in fairness to Mr. Lang himself that the decision must be postponed so that we in the Home Office can take full account of the findings of the investigation into the complaints against the police officers. These complaints could bring to light new material that must be considered and taken into account in the proper and full consideration of the compensation claim that has been pushed so forcibly by the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge on behalf of a constituent of his hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East. That is bound to lead to some further delay in determining Mr. Lang's claim. However, I fear that that is unavoidable, given the possible relevance of the complaints to the decision which must be taken on the claim for compensation.

I assure the hon. Members for Tyne Bridge and for Gateshead, East that I am arranging to be fully informed of the results of the findings of the independent body which is statutorily charged with this matter when those findings are known. Thereafter we will reach a decision as quickly as we can, for I fully appreciate the length of time that has been taken just as I appreciate the length of time during which Mr. Lang was on remand in prison.

I hope that the hon. Members for Tyne Bridge and Gateshead, East will find my response as helpful as possible this evening. Needless to say, the representations that the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge has made to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in writing and the points that he has made clearly and forcefully to the House tonight will be fully and carefully taken into account before we reach a final decision on the claim for compensation.

10.26 pm
Mr. Ted Leadbitter (Hartlepool)

I want to raise a few questions as I believe that we still have five minutes left.

The Minister has approached this matter with a remarkable amount of responsibility. This is an individual matter in which a sense of injustice is still outstanding. However, I am genuinely puzzled by one or two of the Minster's comments. First, he said that the prosecution in this case did not sustain the burden of proof. It is clear that the evidence before the court was substantially short of proving a state of guilt. The Minister went on to say that an acquittal is not necessarily a question of exoneration. Unless some words are used in the acquittal to suggest that there is a lack of complete exoneration, we must assume that exoneration exists. Finally, he said that the delay in dealing with the claim for compensation arises from a complaint againt the police.

If a complaint is put by Mr. Lang's solicitors to the police about their conduct, we must assume that in the case which was heard against Mr. Lang before the court, all the evidence that the police could have brought was brought to sustain a state of guilt. What is there in the complaint against the police which suggests to the Minister that there is new evidence or even the possibility of new evidence? I would have thought that that was a separate matter.

I am happy that the Minister has approached the question broadly with a sense of understanding. I am sure that to some degree he satisfies my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East (Ms. Quin) and of course my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) who put the case tonight. However, I feel that there is a degree of procrastination here which is irritating. The man was acquitted and the evidence has gone. I am sure that the Home Office should be more concerned about bringing the matter to an end.

Mr. Patten

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman feels that there has been unnecessary procrastination. On the other hand, I can understand how such a feeling can arise as this matter has taken a long time. In answer to the second of the hon. Gentleman's substantial points, who am I to say that the inquiry by the statutory authority into the complaints against the police would not produce new material facts which could influence my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to take a decision in favour of Mr. Lang? However, if we go ahead now who is to say that my right hon. Friend might not take a decision the other way? No doubt, then the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge or his hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East would return to the charge again and say that we must look at the issue once more.

I understand what the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter) said about exoneration. However, if he addresses himself to the Official Report of 29 November 1985, columns 691 and 692, he will see that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary sets out clearly the fact that he sees no statutory provision for the payment of compensation but, thereafter, he sets out certain circumstances in which he will consider the payment of ex-gratia compensation. We have to cleave closely to my right hon. Friend's statement; and it is on the basis of that statement that my right hon. Friend will make his decision in due course when we have the report on the complaints against the police.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.