HC Deb 25 January 1989 vol 145 cc1155-60

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

12.27 am
Ms. Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood)

I wish to raise the case of my constituent, Paul Dandy, and further serious allegations that have been put to me, as I have investigated his case, by a number of solicitors and retired policemen in Birmingham. The widespread allegation is that the West Midlands serious crime squad has for many years been engaged in serious and widespread malpractice and that that situation continues today.

I have heard before of allegations of malpractice in the police force and did not think that I would be easily shocked, but the degree and breadth of the allegations of malpractice in the West Midlands serious crime squad which have come to me from solicitors in Birmingham has shocked me. I hope that the Minister will take the issue seriously tonight and not dismiss it.

My constituent, Paul Dandy, was arrested in February 1987 and held as a category A prisoner at Winson Green prison for 10 months during which time he attempted to commit suicide. In November 1987, all charges against him were dropped because his solicitor had obtained forensic evidence which showed that his confession—the charge against him was based on his confession—had been forged by the police. The prosecution consulted its forensic expert, who confirmed the finding and the charge was dropped. The technique that proved this is new. The equipment used is called electrostatic detection apparatus. It can copy a page that has been laid below another one and bring out, through the imprint, a copy of what was written on the page above. The test showed that the crucial page containing Mr. Dandy's admission had been rewritten and the confession inserted. It had not been there when the statement was taken.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Dandy made a very serious complaint against the police. I notice that the Minister is not listening to this short debate about a very serious matter. It amounts to conspiracy to pervert the course of justice—forgery by the police in an attempt to frame an individual on a very serious charge.

What happened then was very shocking. The case was investigated by the Birmingham police force. A person from outside the force was not appointed, which is supposed to be done in a serious case such as this. There was a long delay before any inquiries were made. The guy who was appointed to carry out the inquiry was on holiday at the time. After that long delay, the eventual finding was that the police concerned were not to be charged with a criminal offence, or even disciplined for having fabricated evidence. They were merely reprimanded for disposing of the original page of the statement.

Mr. Dandy's solicitors contacted me about the matter. I went to the Police Complaints Authority. I was told that it was very worried about the case, that it was also very worried in general about the behaviour of the serious crime squad in the west midlands but that it could do little because Parliament required the authority to prove cases beyond reasonable doubt. It said that attempts were being made to clean up the serious crime squad in the west midlands. I hope the Minister will tell us more about that.

All that is bad enough, but I am afraid that the story gets very much worse. When I met Mr. Dandy's solicitors they told me that allegations of malpractice against the serious crime squad were widespread. They suggested to me that I should contact a number of other solicitors in Birmingham and the west midlands who could provide me with the details. I do not have the time now to outline all the cases that were put to me when I telephoned a number of solicitors. I have decided not to give the names of the police officers or of cases. The major import of what I want to say tonight is not that injustice has been done in a number of individual cases—bad though that is and true though that is, and I should like justice to be done for my constituent, Mr. Dandy—but that there is a pattern of malpractice. I shall describe it briefly. I want my remarks to be taken seriously and action to be taken to clean up the serious crime squad in the west midlands.

A solicitor in Wolverhampton told me of a case he had handled in the Dudley Green court and of another one in the Stafford Crown court. Three people were involved in each case. They all made supposed confessions, which they denied. As soon as he heard of this new forensic test the solicitor obtained the approval of the court to obtain the original statements. Until that time he had been given only photocopies. The test can only be made with the originals that contain the imprints.

There was a delay of six weeks before the papers were handed over. He made a number of demands that they should be handed over and then he was told that all the papers, involving six individuals in two separate cases, had been lost. That experienced solicitor, who handles a wide range of cases in Wolverhampton, said that the serious crime squad in the west midlands is rotten, that that is known by solicitors throughout the west midlands, that this practice had gone on for many years but that the recent new test had caught out the serious crime squad. He also said that respected judges had complained on a number of occasions but that nothing had been done.

Another solicitor in Birmingham told me of a case involving four men who were arrested six months after a jewellery robbery involving goods to the value of £40,000. It was a serious robbery. The only evidence against them was confessions. The same forensic test was used. In one case it showed that two pages had been inserted in a five-page statement. Three pages contained no confession. All the damaging stuff had been inserted on the other two pages.

Another person who was charged in the same case had supposedly made a confession in 14 minutes. Under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, the amount of time during which people are interrogated is now recorded. The judge agreed that the policeman should be asked to rewrite the confession in 14 minutes. He attempted to do so—presumably writing at top speed, faster than one would when taking down a statement—and it took him 21 minutes and some seconds to do so. The case was thrown out of court. His solicitor said that such things had been going on in the West Midlands serious crime squad for at least 15 years, the time he has been practising in the area. He thought it was astonishing and worrying that absolutely nothing had been done about it.

Another fine solicitor whom I have known for many years as a friend was involved in another bad case which I have not time to outline but which has been publicised in the past. He said to me, "Dandy is the tip of an iceberg." No solicitor in Birmingham would say anything other than that the serious crime squad is fundamentally dishonest. The men in the squad decide who are guilty and frame them. The malpractice goes back to at least the mid-1970s. I remind the House that the serious case of the Birmingham bombers goes back to that time. Many people are convinced that the wrong men were convicted of that terrible crime. So we are talking about something widespread, deep and serious. This solicitor was angry that in the few cases where there was evidence which might have led to things being cleaned up, there was a cover-up and in the individual cases nothing was done.

A retired policeman who served honourably in the Birmingham police force says that the problem is that the serious crime squad is an elitist squad in which there is enormous pressure and competition to get results and convictions. Many men who have served in it for a long time have fallen into malpractice and protect each other constantly. They cut corners. Everyone knows it. The policeman said that other policemen look the other way and that many good policemen in Birmingham refuse promotion so as not to have to serve in that squalid way. Ambitious policemen go into the squad and they have to go along with the malpractice.

I hope that the Minister will not tell me that the Police Complaints Authority will investigate the cases I have outlined and that justice will be done. In the case of Paul Dandy the Police Complaints Authority could not ensure that justice was done. The widespread allegations about the position in the west midlands are so serious that we need more than incomplete investigations in individual cases.

I want the Minister to consider using the police inspectorate. I understand that the Home Secretary talked recently about using the inspectorate to ensure efficiency and good value for money. I assume that the inspectorate has the power to move into the West Midlands serious crime squad in Birmingham to make a full investigation and clean up the squad by moving out the men whose names occur time and time again. A policeman involved in one case to which I have referred was also involved in the case of the Birmingham six.

The squad must be reorganised. Some people who are not guilty are being framed and put behind bars. The new forensic test has only recently become available but according to the solicitors the malpractice has been going on for years. When policemen with a bad reputation appear in court for the prosecution their record is brought into play, juries do not believe their evidence and people are acquitted. I am told by solicitors in Birmingham that serious criminals are being acquitted because of the reputation of senior figures in the West Midlands serious crime squad.

I hope that the Minister will take the matter seriously. I considered that it was right to bring it before the House rather than seek private meetings with, for example, the chief constable, who in any case is about to leave us and go off to Northern Ireland. The people in the west midlands are entitled to know about this and they are entitled to action to clean up the malpractice. I very much hope that the Minister will assist us.

12.39 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hogg)

As the House will appreciate, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) has made a series of important and serious allegations against a force, and I am sure that the chief constable of that force will give serious consideration to the points that she has made.

This debate gives me the opportunity to make clear the arrangements for handling complaints and allegations against police officers in England and Wales. It is essential that these arrangements—and the statutory responsibili ties of the parties concerned—should be understood., for it is against this background that the case of Mr. Paul Dandy and the other allegations referred to by the hon. Lady must be seen.

The procedures for dealing with complaints against the police and with police discipline matters are set down in part IX of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the associated regulations. Where a chief officer receives a complaint against an officer of his force who is a chief superintendent or below, he is required to record it. If it cannot be resolved informally, the chief officer must arrange for it to be investigated formally. As the hon. Lady knows, complaints against senior officers are matters for the Police Complaints Authority. Certain complaints—for example, where death, serious injury or corruption are alleged—must be referred to the Police Complaints Authority.

Ms. Short

I am familiar with the police complaints procedure, so I hope that the Minister will not filibuster and simply describe that procedure. The questions that. I have put tonight are far more serious than that. We understand the procedures and we have been through them, but they have failed. We have also discovered a pattern of widespread malpractice, which is what we want the Minister to address tonight.

Mr. Hogg

It is never my practice to filibuster, but it is my practice to give the House a clear understanding of the issues in such a case and the procedures that apply. That is what I propose to do now.

Certain complaints—for example, where death, serious injury or corruption are alleged—must be referred to the Police Complaints Authority. In other cases, the chief officer may, nevertheless, decide that it is in the public interest to refer the case.

The authority is totally independent of the police and the Government. Its job is to see that a complaint is dealt with thoroughly and, above all, fairly. None of the members of the authority is a police officer or has ever been one. The authority has two main functions. First, it supervises the investigation by the police of serious complaints and others of an exceptional nature. Secondly, it has the final say about whether a police officer should be charged with a breach of discipline.

These powers are considerable. It is, for example, required to approve the appointment of the police officer conducting an investigation, and if it is not satisfied it may direct that another is appointed. Where the report of an investigation indicates that a criminal offence may have been committed by a police officer, it is for the chief officer to consider whether the police officer should be charged and, if so, to bring that before the Director of Public Prosecutions. In addition, the Police Complaints Authority may direct a chief officer to send an investigation report to the director to consider bringing criminal charges. It is entirely a matter for the director as to whether charges should be brought.

The House will note from what I have said that my right right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has no part in these procedures. It would be quite wrong for him to be involved in such matters in view of the fact that he is the appellate authority in police discipline matters.

I turn now to the specific case of Mr. Dandy. The hon. Lady has outlined the circumstances of his arrest in February 1987 by the West Midlands serious crime squad, those leading to the decision by the prosecution to call no evidence against him and the dropping of the charges. Subsequently, as the hon. Lady has said, Mr. Dandy made a formal complaint against certain police officers. The complaint was referred by the chief constable of the West Midlands force to the Police Complaints Authority in accordance with the provisions of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. The authority then supervised an investigation into the complaint—once again, strictly in compliance with the legislation.

After consideration of the investigating officer's report, the Director of Public Prosecutions decided—and it was his decision alone—that the evidence did not justify the bringing of any criminal proceedings against any police officers.

Subsequently, however, disciplinary charges were brought against three officers with the agreement of the Police Complaints Authority. They were dealt with by the chief officer under the provisions of the Police Discipline Regulations 1985.

Ms. Short

Will the Minister confirm that the officers were disciplined not for fabricating or forging a confession, but simply for having disposed of the original piece of paper and for nothing else?

Mr. Hogg

Broadly speaking, the hon. Lady is correct, but I do not have in front of me the exact provision of the discipline regulations under which the officers were charged.

Mr. Dandy's allegations were fully considered and dealt with by the proper authorities under the statutory provisions. Home Office Ministers have no part in this process and it would be wrong for me to comment on the outcome of proceedings that were clearly in accordance with established procedures and the statute.

The hon. Lady made a number of allegations that were more general in character. I understand that complaints from other members of the public about the West Midlands serious crime squad have been, or are being, investigated under the supervision of the Police Complaints Authority. These investigations must take their proper course.

I turn to the specific allegations made by the hon. Lady —specific in the sense that they were descriptive, although she did not, and I understand her reasons, identify the officers or give such close particulars that one could identify them. If people are alleging that there is serious misconduct in the force, and especially in the serious crime squad, they must go to the chief constable with specific allegations, backed by evidence. If they do that, the procedures, which have been established by statute, will take their course. That is the procedure laid down by Parliament to deal with matters of this kind.

If the hon. Lady is in possession of detailed allegations which, on the face of them, are credible and for which there is supporting evidence, I urge her to lay those allegations, together with the evidence, before the chief constable. If she does not wish to do that but the complainants do, I urge her to urge them to do so. I take advantage of my presence at the Dispatch Box to do just that. If there are serious allegations that can be substantiated, those complaints must be placed before the chief constable and the procedures that I outlined at the beginning of my speech, and for which, incidentally, I was criticised by the hon. Lady, will then operate. That is the proper way to proceed.

Ms. Short

There have been several complaints and there have been unsatisfactory outcomes in a large number of those cases. That is part of the problem. I shall, of course, encourage everyone to continue to use the complaints procedure, although our confidence in it has been deeply dented. However, Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary is housed at the Home Office and it has powers to ensure that police forces around the country operate up to standard. This matter is so serious that the inspectorate should be sent in and the West Midlands serious crime squad cleaned up. I hope that the Minister will respond to that suggestion.

Mr. Hogg

The inspectorate is not the proper method of dealing with problems of that nature, which involve allegations of specific misconduct against a number of named officers, as I understand it. The proper procedure is to adopt that which I have outlined. There is no other proper procedure. I urge the hon. Lady to do what I have put to her, and I urge those who have put complaints to her to do that which I have outlined to the House.

Home Office Ministers have no power to intervene. There is a thorough and fair system for dealing with allegations against police officers and it provides for an independent element in the form of the Police Complaints Authority. I am sure that if allegations are properly made, they will be examined in a fair and independent manner.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes to One o'clock