HC Deb 12 December 1991 vol 200 cc1221-8

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

8 am

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

The matter that I wish to raise has been described by the chairman of the Bar Council, Tony Scrivener QC, as a landmark case and it will be of particular interest to members of the royal commission who are considering under what circumstances confession evidence should be admitted.

The case demonstrates that, despite the safeguards provided by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, West Midlands police officers are still able to persuade people to confess to crimes that they did not commit and even to tape-record those false confessions. It demonstrates that all the bland assurances—we may hear more of them later—that everything has been fine since PACE are nonsense.

The case also shows that, even when West Midlands police officers have been caught fabricating confessions and attempting to pervert the course of justice, they can rely on their superiors, up to the chief constable himself, to make sure that the truth is covered up. They can rely on the Crown prosecution service to connive in the disappearance of inconvenient evidence. They can rely on the silence of the police authority to whom the chief constable is supposed to account. Finally, they can rely on the Home Office to block any inquiries from inquisitive Members of Parliament.

They can rely, too, on the silence of the local media. It is a feature of almost all the great scandals in the west midlands that new information rarely, if ever, emerges as a result of the efforts of the Birmingham-based media. In this case, once again the truth has emerged only due to the diligence of local solicitors and the Granada television programme, "World in Action." Once again, the local media come limping along behind and, once again, they can be relied upon to drop the subject within a few days as soon as the outsiders have departed.

We shall be told in a moment to relax, as the matter is being examined by the West Yorkshire police. Why should we have the slightest confidence in the ability of the West Yorkshire police to get at the truth? They have just completed, at enormous cost to the taxpayer, a lengthy inquiry into the activities of the West Midlands serious crime squad. I have read their report. In many respects it is a thorough document and makes sensible recommendations, but it has one central flaw. Nowhere can the West Yorkshire officers bring themselves to state what everyone knows to be the truth: that West Midlands detectives have, over a long period, been fabricating confessions. Instead, the report talks coyly about entries in pocket books that are "less than satisfactory" and working practices that give cause for concern". There have been the usual handful of retirements on grounds of ill health, but most of the officers involved are now back on duty. No one, as far as I am aware, has been properly held to account for anything and I will be amazed if anyone ever is. In the circumstances, I hope that the Minister will forgive me if I do not take too seriously any claim that the West Yorkshire police can be relied upon to get to the truth.

I shall now set out the facts surrounding the death of PC Tony Salt. On the evening of Saturday 16 April 1989, PC Salt and his colleague PC Mark Berry were assigned to keep watch on an illegal night club in the Small Heath district of Birmingham. They were to keep watch from a private flat in Whitehall road. They were in plain clothes and their job was to remain in hiding, logging people and cars as they arrived at the club.

Unfortunately, however, by 9 pm Messrs Salt and Berry had abandoned their observation post and commenced a drinking spree at a local pub, the Grapes in Green lane. At 11 pm, somewhat the worse for wear, they returned to duty, but at about 1 am they returned to the pub for a bout of after-hours drinking. PC Berry later admitted that by the time they left the pub for the second time they had each consumed seven or eight pints of beer, one short and half a can of super-strength lager. Witnesses say that they had difficulty in standing and one gives an account of a fierce argument between them when Berry suggested that they return to their post and Salt wanted to remain for another drink. Apparently, someone had to come between them to prevent a fight.

They left the pub again at about 2 am and Berry returned to the observation post. Salt, however, wandered down the alleyway that they were supposed to be observing, in the direction of the illegal party. About 20 minutes later, Berry saw Salt collapse at the mouth of the alley. He was dead on arrival at hospital.

The next day, Assistant Chief Constable Tom Meffen, held a press conference at which he gave a version of PC Salt's death which was loyally reported by the local media for many months. I am acquainted with Mr. Meffen, as he was the officer who in September 1986 was summoned to the Home Office—dragged by the scruff of the neck, as he put it—to interview me about my claim that the people convicted of the Birmingham pub bombings were innocent. In this case, as in that of the pub bombings, Mr. Meffen has a few questions to answer.

At the press conference, Mr. Meffen asserted that PC Salt had broken cover to check a suspect car and was set upon by a person or persons with martial arts skills, dragged into the alley and beaten to death. That was nonsense. In fact, there never was a suspect car and Salt never broke cover—he was on his way back from trying to get into the party. I understand that the West Midlands police now say that Mr. Meffen has no clear idea of where he got the information but that he thinks it was from a private conversation with PC Berry. That is odd, because, although Mr. Berry has given many different accounts of what happened that night, none corresponds with Mr. Meffen's.

Four statements given by PC Berry have so far been disclosed, the last apparently obtained after he had been interviewed under hypnosis. In addition, there is at least one other known interview, the notes of which have not been disclosed; nor has the record of the interview under hypnosis which was videoed and which would be of great interest as the statement based on that interview is still some distance from the whole truth.

According to a statement by a colleague who was called to the scene, PC Berry at first said that he thought that PC Salt had had a fit. He made no mention of an attack. In his first formal statement, Berry said that he saw a West Indian leave the alleyway three or four minutes before Salt staggered out. There was no one else in sight and he went to Salt's aid immediately.

Mr. Berry's statement says that Salt was followed out of the alley by a West Indian who appeared to be involved in PC Salt's collapse and stole from his body. Berry maintains in this version that he went immediately to Salt's aid.

Mr. Berry's third statement—it is not every day that there are four statements from the same police officer, all differing so substantially—contains two West Indians, one with dreadlocks, who appeared to push Salt from the alleyway. This time Berry says that he was too scared to get involved straight away.

By the fourth and final statement, Mr. Berry claims for the first time to have seen Salt stumbling into the alley in the direction of the illegal nightclub two or three minutes before stumbling out again and collapsing. He now remembers a detailed description of the West Indian said to have robbed Mr. Salt. It therefore became urgent—especially in the light of Mr. Meffen's statement—to find someone to take responsibility for Mr. Salt's death. In due course, three West Indians were arrested and what happened to them will be of interest to anyone who believes that tape or video recording is the answer to the problem of statements in police custody.

The three were at first told that they were being asked to assist with inquiries by identifying from photographs people who had attended the party. That was false. It is clear from questions put earlier to PC Berry that they were already suspects. The arrested men were Peter Gibbs, Mark Samuels and Tony Francis. None fitted the description given by PC Berry in his second statement of an assailant with dreadlocks. Indeed, no more was ever heard about the man with dreadlocks.

Gibbs was taken to Queen's road police station where several of the Birmingham Six were persuaded to sign confessions that later proved false. No custody record exists of Gibbs' visit. There he was interviewed by DC 9669 Gerald Harris and DC 7782 Gerald Doyle. This is Gibbs' version of what happened: They were saying you can either do it peacefully or we can do it rough. I've been beaten up before in police stations and its not very nice. I wasn't prepared to go through all that again. Eventually, he agreed to admit to stealing PC Salt's wallet and a martial arts weapon called a cubiton that Salt was thought to be carrying.

Mr. Gibbs then describes how, once he had agreed to admit the thefts, he was carefully rehearsed in what he was to say once the recorder was switched on: They started going over the story with me, over and over again, so I could get it correct, so that it could fit in with everything else. They planned everything out before I went into the interview room. He was then taken to Belgrave road where his statement was taped. The custody record commences only with his arrival at Belgrave road.

Mark Samuels and Tony Francis were taken to Sparkhill police station. Again, there is no custody record of the dress rehearsal. Samuels was interviewed by DS 7263 Alan Shakespeare and DS 7253 Richard Davies. This is Mr. Samuels' account of the interview: I was there in Sparkhill for nine and half hours, with nothing on half the time and they try telling me 'you're going to get done for murder if you don't own up to this theft'. I just took the easy way out. Samuels was then taken to Belgrave road where the custody record commences, and in due course he confessed on tape to stealing PC Salt's wallet and cubiton.

Tony Francis was the doorman at the party which Salt and Berry were supposed to be observing. He was also taken to Sparkhill police station and questioned for most

of the day, although there is no record of his presence there. He was interviewed by DS 2487 Richard Leary and DC 2344 Michael Howkins, both members of the now disbanded serious crimes squad. He describes what happened:

I was intimidated, slapped around. Threats were made against my family. Mr. Francis says that he agreed to make a statement because he was told that, if he did not, drugs would be found in his house which would have led to a gaol sentence for his girlfriend and the loss of his children. On tape he agreed that Tony Salt had tried to gain entrance to the party and that he had prevented him. All three were then charged with murder. Gibbs and Samuels, who had only been persuaded to confess to stealing, say that the police officers laughed as they revealed that they were being charged with murder and not theft.

Meanwhile, there was another witness to be squared. Seventeen-year-old Simone Armstrong had originally told police that Samuels and Gibbs had left the party well before PC Salt's death. She was persuaded to make a second statement saying that she had seen Francis hit Salt and had also seen Gibbs and Samuels rob him. She describes how this was achieved:

There were more than five men and one woman in the room with me. They were all shouting and I was crying. They were saying, 'You did see it' and putting things into my head … I just couldn't take no more so I said to them, 'Just write down what you want to write down, okay?' The officer to whom Simone Armstrong's second statement was dictated was DS Michael Swinnerton. Students of the West Midlands serious crimes squad will recall that he was also the officer who achieved the remarkable feat of noting down, by torchlight, a lengthy confession from Hassan Khan in a police car travelling at high speed. His evidence was disbelieved by the Court of Appeal and Mr. Khan's conviction was quashed.

No sooner had the men been charged than things began to go wrong. A taxi driver was found who said that he had taken Gibbs and Samuels from the party some time before PC Salt died. Two pathologists said that, even if Francis had hit Salt at the entrance to the party, the blow could not have killed him. Nor did they believe that his injury—a blow to the neck which ruptured a blood vessel and caused a brain haemorrhage—had been inflicted at the entrance to the party, since he could not have staggered 120 ft back to the street. The pathologists believed that the most likely explanation for his death was that, in his drunken state, Mr. Salt had fallen and hit his head on the bucket of a JCB digger parked nearby. Most damaging of all, PC Salt's widow made a statement saying that she had found the missing cubiton—the one the two defendants had confessed for stealing—on the floor of the family car. That was very embarrassing. The defendants had also confessed to stealing £30 from PC Salt's wallet, but in her statement Mrs. Salt says that her husband had only £5 on him that evening.

The fate of Mrs. Salt's statement is of particular interest. It was not among the documents later disclosed to the defence by the Crown prosecution service. Its absence was noticed only because there were gaps in the numbered pages of the evidence that was disclosed.

There is a long history of inconvenient evidence being suppressed by the police and by the Crown. This is a classic case. I have written to the Attorney-General asking for an explanation. I understand that the official responsible for the case at the west midlands office of the CPS was a Mr. R. J. Millard.

Despite the evident collapse of the case, it took a year for the charges to be dropped. Many prominent people played a part in covering up the truth. The coroner closed the inquest without hearing the full evidence.

Remarkably, PC Berry was allowed to retire on health grounds, his pension intact. There have been a lot of retirements on health grounds in the West Midlands police lately. I assume that the decision not to press any criminal or disciplinary charges against Mr. Berry was taken at a high level.

A memorial service was held in September 1989, six months after PC Salt's death. By that time many people in high places knew or had a good idea of the truth, but no one let on. The chief constable, Mr. Geoffrey Dear, attended the memorial service and spoke warmly of the deceased.

This case is yet another scandal for which Mr. Dear, as the then chief constable, must take ultimate responsibility. Incredible though it may seem, he has since been promoted to Her Majesty's chief inspector of constabulary and is now responsible for enforcing standards throughout the region.

So far as I am aware—perhaps the Minister will tell us otherwise—none of the police officers responsible for extracting the fraudulent confessions or losing Mrs. Salt's statement has suffered the merest inconvenience. Most of the officers involved continue to maintain the rule of law in the west midlands in the manner to which we have become accustomed.

The Home Office, too, I am afraid to say, has behaved true to form. I asked the Minister last month whether he would call for a report on the case from the chief constable of the west midlands. He answered no. I cannot say that I am surprised. We had a similar experience with the Birmingham pub bombing case some years ago.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) wrote to the new chief constable, Mr. Hadfield, and received a reply confirming that an inquiry was under way, prompted, presumably, by the television programme rather than a burning desire to get at the truth. He also said that Mr. Berry had been diagnosed as suffering from high anxiety—I bet he was—and had been allowed to retire.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) wrote to the chairman of the West Midlands policy authority and received an identical reply, about a page long in both cases. It would appear that the chairman of the police authority allows the chief constable to draft his letters for him. So much for accountability. One of the most remarkable features in the long series of scandals that have engulfed what is surely the most corrupt police force in the country has been the lack of any initiative from the police authority.

Finally, the Police Federation has added PC Salt to its roll of honour of officers killed on active duty. He remains there to this day.

As I say, this is only the latest in a long series of scandals. It demonstrates that no lessons have been learnt from what has gone before. How can we hope to restore public confidence in our police and judicial system if those responsible for maintaining its integrity appear not to care?

8.18 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Peter Lloyd)

As usual, I have listened to the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) with interest. The hon. Gentleman courteously informed me yesterday that he wished to take most of the time in this debate to set out his characteristically full case on the sad death of PC Salt and the related circumstances and aftermath. As he and the House will know, it would be wrong for me to comment on those matters in any detail. However, I shall say something briefly on the more general points that he raises about the inquiries taking place.

The hon. Gentleman opened his speech with a swingeing and quite unjustified criticism of the bona fides of several police forces, the Crown prosecution service and the Home Office. I will not repeat here the numerous explanations that have been given to the House emphasising the thoroughness and independence of the investigation that has just been completed into the activities of the West Midlands serious crime squad, because, clearly, the hon. Gentleman is not prepared to acknowledge its truth.

I cannot comment on the behaviour of members of the former West Midlands serious crime squad while all those cases—I emphasise the word "all"—are under consideration by the Director of Public Prosecutions. Even so, I place on record that care has been exercised at all stages to ensure that nothing that might have gone amiss would be covered up or glossed over.

The chief constable of the West Midlands force promptly transferred a large number of his officers to non-operational duties, despite his awareness that that would cause many of them great distress and hardship. At the same time, he called in a distinguished officer from another force to lead a thorough investigation and arranged for that investigation to be supervised by the Police Complaints Authority.

That having been done, all the reports have now been passed for a second stage of independent assessment to the Crown prosecution service, whose business it is to bring any criminal charges that may be in the public interest and for which there is evidence. There is absolutely no cover-up here.

Mr. Mullin

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Lloyd


The hon. Gentleman used most of his speech to recount a number of alleged instances of unacceptably low standards of police behaviour. The hon. Gentleman indicated that PC Salt was drunk at the time that he died, and said that various other police officers made false statements or harassed, or worse, Messrs. Samuels, Francis and Gibbs, and other witnesses. Such behaviour, if true, must be dealt with appropriately—but, again, that is not something on which the hon. Gentleman can expect me to comment.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department is the final appellate authority for the police disciplinary process. If any of the officers were to be disciplined, in time it might fall to my right hon. Friend to decide any appeal that they might make about any finding of guilt that might be made. My right hon. Friend could not properly do so were he to form an opinion before seeing the case papers, and therefore we exercise some care to avoid involvement in such matters at any earlier date. It would be improper for us to do so.

The chief constable is the disciplinary authority for his force. I can confirm that the chief constable of the West Midlands force wrote to the Director of Public Prosecutions on Tuesday 5 November—the day after the "World in Action" programme to which the hon. Gentleman referred—asking that the assistant chief constable of West Yorkshire, Mr. Donald Shaw, be asked to re-examine the issues raised and to report further on any matters not specifically or precisely covered in his earlier report. I understand that the Director of Public Prosecutions agreed, and that Mr. Shaw is currently undertaking the re-examination.

I need hardly say that police officers are not above the law, and if any are detected of any criminal offence the Director of Public Prosecutions has no hesitation in bringing charges.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Sunderland, South on securing this debate and on packing so much into it. I am sure that his remarks will be carefully read by those whom he wants to read them.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes past Eight o'clock.