HC Deb 10 June 1998 vol 313 cc1049-58 1.30 pm
Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby)

This debate revolves around the requirement to resign that was imposed on a former sergeant of the Merseyside police, his unfair treatment and the bias shown to him by senior personnel and the police service as a whole.

The man in question is Raymond Ravenscroft Herring, a constituent of mine. Mr. Herring is a 41-year-old man, who has served in the Merseyside police force for 20 years. He was qualified to the rank of inspector, and was twice commended for professionalism and dedication to duty. He held the position of custody officer in Liverpool's main prison detention centre, which is probably one of the most stressful and busiest posts outside London.

Mr. Herring's misfortunes started in 1993, when a summer ball was held opposite his home at the Blundellsands tennis club. Mr. Herring had been in dispute with the club for some time over its apparent flouting of the licensing laws, the volume of noise and the coming and going of visitors.

On the eve of 12 September 1993, the Blundellsands tennis club embarked on its summer ball. Mr. Herring rang the police to complain about the noise, but received no immediate response. He then crossed the road from his home to the lawn tennis club to complain about the noise. Mr. Michael Smerdon, a prominent character in the case, met Mr. Herring. Mr. Smerdon's wife was the president of the lawn tennis club, and Mr. Smerdon had the role of overseeing entry into the club and other managerial matters.

Mr. Herring obtained no satisfaction from Mr. Smerdon, which led to a lengthy dispute between the two men and other patrons of the club. As he left the ball, Mr. Herring was still awaiting the arrival of the police. There, Mr. Herring and his wife were outnumbered by people who were, in the main, worse for drink. A scuffle ensued, resulting in Mrs. Herring being pushed to the floor and receiving injuries. Mr. Herring did not respond, however, preferring to wait for the police to arrive to settle matters, which they duly did.

Even though Mr. Herring felt that the group had behaved in a disorderly fashion—in addition to his wife being pushed to the ground, his car had been damaged—he accepted the police decision that the matter should be resolved as a civil dispute, and that no formal action should be taken. Everyone was advised accordingly—and that should have been the end of the matter.

At this point, the following facts should be noted. When Mr. Herring made his complaint against the tennis club, Mr. Smerdon was unaware that Mr. Herring was a policeman. Mr. Smerdon became aware of that only after the incident. During the dispute at the lawn tennis club, Mr. Herring said that he would oppose any future application for an extension to the drinking hours that the lawn tennis club might submit to the local licensing committee.

Mr. Herring believes that those facts could have encouraged Mr. Smerdon to make a formal complaint against him. Mr. Herring believes that Mr. Smerdon wanted to discredit him, thus ensuring that any objection that he might raise with the licensing committee with respect to an extension of drinking hours would be placed to one side. Mr. Smerdon could thus assert that Mr. Herring had been disciplined as a consequence of a complaint against the lawn tennis club, and that any objection that he might raise against an application would therefore be based on malice and should be rejected.

Some weeks after the incident, Mr. Herring was made aware that the members of the lawn tennis club, alleging that he had acted in a discreditable manner, made a formal complaint against him. The investigation by the Merseyside police complaints and discipline department was, to say the least, thorough. Numerous statements were obtained, with far more vigour than a more serious complaint would normally receive. On one occasion, Mr. Herring asked for details of the guests at the club, a fact that the police would have known, to help him in the preparation of his defence. That request was denied.

The disciplinary case against Mr. Herring was held in the early part of 1995. Mr. Herring was unable to attend that hearing because of injury. The case proceeded in his absence; and from one incident, he was found guilty of four charges of discreditable conduct.

On 12 June 1995, the chief constable of Merseyside, Sir James Sharples, ordered Mr. Herring to resign from the force. Mr. Herring was also fined. In effect, merely for making a complaint of disorder, he had lost his job and his livelihood.

Is that a reasonable response to such a complaint? If so, will the Home Secretary explain why Inspector Andrew Lathom, who was convicted of assault, was merely reduced in rank? Why was Constable Robert Dunne allowed to retire on medical grounds, having been accused of indecency, only to repeat the offence in retirement and later be convicted? Why was Constable Neil Thompson, who was suspended from duty for fabricating a statement of arrest, later reinstated as, it was said, it was not in the public interest to prosecute? Why was Constable Michael Meadows, who was arrested for twice crashing his motor car while drunk and leaving the scene, only reprimanded?

All the officers guilty of those misdemeanours served Merseyside police. The examples given are not exhaustive; the details given are a matter of record. Can it be said that Mr. Herring's so-called crime of merely complaining about a noisy party—after 20 years of service—ranks above those?

Mr. Herring was devastated. After 20 years of service, and for such a trivial matter, he was now unemployed, financially unstable and completely isolated. With the help of the Police Federation, Mr. Herring appealed. A distinguished panel, including a retired judge and a chief officer of police, heard his appeal. The findings are a matter of record.

Although it accepted that Mr. Herring might have acted over-zealously in his approach, the panel unanimously found in his favour. The panel criticised Merseyside police for the late serving of discipline notices, and for preferring four charges to one global charge. They also criticised the fact that a staff appraisal had been submitted at the hearing, which flew in the face of all other excellent reports—and was, moreover, prepared by an individual whom Mr. Herring had never met. In all, the tribunal felt that Mr. Herring should never have been dismissed, and that, even if he were guilty as charged, he should receive no more than a reprimand.

Mr. Herring's relief was short-lived. The findings were sent to the then Home Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), who chose to overturn them. Mr. Herring's appeal was dismissed. Mr. Herring firmly believed that that decision was the result of a direct intervention by the chief constable to ensure that he never had the chance to return to work, and thus be a potential irritant to the police on Merseyside.

Unfortunately, that was not the end of the matter. In September 1996, the Blundellsands tennis club held yet another summer ball. Once again, Mr. Herring and his neighbours were disturbed by the noise of the ball. Mr. Herring called the police, and the music was turned down for a while. As the music level rose, Mr. Herring rang the police again, and, receiving no response, appealed to Mr. Smerdon, who, it should be remembered, had been a witness in the disciplinary hearing that led to Mr. Herring's dismissal.

Following the advice of officers in the environmental services department—and fortunately for him, as it transpired—Mr. Herring took the precaution of carrying with him a small, concealed tape recorder so that there could be no dispute about what took place—the noise levels and so on.

After Mr. Herring appealed to Mr. Smerdon, Mr. Smerdon responded by ridiculing Mr. Herring. He belittled him, and even taunted him about freemasons and about his own acquaintance with senior police officers who were also freemasons. Despite that, Mr. Herring acted in a restrained and dignified way, as he had in September 1993. However, just before the police arrived—the police Mr. Herring had summoned—Mr. Smerdon suddenly accused Mr. Herring of spitting in his face. That was nonsense, and all present knew it, including a bystander who commented to that effect at the time.

When the two police officers arrived, they were apprised of the allegation, and immediately demanded that Mr. Herring go with them to the station. Knowing that he had done no wrong, Mr. Herring naturally agreed. Having been told that he was under arrest to prevent a breach of the peace, Mr. Herring was taken to Crosby police station. He was searched, given his rights and placed in a cell. Two hours later, the arresting officer returned with a statement from Mr. Smerdon alleging that he had been assaulted. Mr. Herring denied the offence, and was released without charge, awaiting the decision of the police and the Crown Prosecution Service.

Papers will show that the police decided to pursue the prosecution after noting that Mr. Herring had raised a complaint against them. On 14 February, the case was heard before South Sefton magistrates court in Bootle. In evidence, Mr. Smerdon, who was still unaware of the existence of the tape recording, confidently described how Mr. Herring had sworn and spat at him. He added that he was not given to aggressive behaviour.

Sergeant Foulkes followed Mr. Smerdon. Sergeant Foulkes described how he went to Mr. Herring and did everything according to procedure: how he had cautioned him outside the house, how he had taken hold of Mr. Herring, and how Mr. Herring had verbally objected. The sergeant, when asked whether he was sure of all the circumstances, was adamant in his response. He was certain that he was telling the absolute truth. He was not mistaken, he could clearly recall the incident, and he was certainly not lying. A second police officer, WPC Martin, who was called to give evidence at a later stage, gave evidence identical in every respect.

At this point, Mr. Herring then introduced to the court his tape recording, which clearly demonstrated that Mr. Smerdon, Sergeant Foulkes and WPC Martin had been lying. Having been told of the tape, Mr. Smerdon was instructed by the court clerk that he was not to inform anyone of its existence. He ignored this instruction and rushed out of the court at the first available opportunity to the lobby outside, saying loudly, He's taped the whole bloody incident. In due course, Mr. Smerdon was brought before the court and fined £100 for contempt of court.

The court transcript records that Mr. Smerdon said that he was "exceptionally calm" and "never swore". The tape revealed that he said: Bog off, pratt features, piss off. The court transcript records that Mr. Smerdon said, "The defendant swore." The tape reveals that the defendant did not swear.

The court transcript records that Mr. Smerdon said: Don't you dare push me. The tape revealed that Mr. Smerdon did not say that. In fact, the defendant said, "Don't touch me." The court transcript records that Mr. Smerdon said that he told Mr. Ward, the commissionaire for the evening, to call the police if the defendant did not leave immediately. The tape reveals that this conversation did not take place. The court transcript records that Mr. Smerdon stated that he was "truthful and honest". That comment is not consistent with the evidence heard on the tape.

The court transcript records that Mr. Smerdon stated that, after the spitting incident, he went directly to make a phone call. The tape shows that Mr. Smerdon remained in discussion and made bird noises and impersonations. The court transcript records that Mr. Ward stated that Mr. Smerdon said: Did you see that man spit at me? The tape reveals that Mr. Smerdon said: Did you see that, Sergeant? The court transcript records that Mr. Ward stated: I don't recall Smerdon being abusive—didn't hear him swearing. The tape reveals that Mr. Ward was present when Mr. Smerdon said: Piss off, bog off, pratt features", and when he made bird impressions. The court transcript records that Sergeant Foulkes said: Spoke to defendant opposite club—he came up to me when I pulled up. The tape reveals that WPC Martin stated that they met in the garden. The court transcript records that Sergeant Foulkes stated on arrival, "Defendant quite happy." The tape reveals that this was not the case. The court transcript records that WPC Martin stated that the music level was quiet. The tape reveals that the music was clearly loud.

The court transcript records that WPC Martin stated: Defendant seemed to be arguing with Smerdon"; and also: Smerdon said defendant was glaring and that there was an altercation. The tape reveals that this was incorrect.

Sergeant Foulkes stated that he had cautioned Mr. Herring and arrested him immediately at the scene—he lied. Both officers said that they had made their detailed pocket notebook entries independently. Clearly, they lied. Both officers said that they had spoken to another witness, Mr. Ward, outside the club premises. Again, they lied.

Following the playing of the tape recording in court, the case collapsed and a new complaint and discipline inquiry began. Mr. Herring, now the complainant, alleged perjury, unlawful arrest and malicious prosecution. Sergeant Foulkes said that his arrest took place outside his home address; he lied on oath, as his arrest took place in the police car. When he asked for an outside force to investigate the complaint to ensure impartiality, his request was denied. Only after 14 months, with the direct intervention of myself and a senior member of the Police Complaints Authority, was the inquiry passed to the Lancashire constabulary. An officer of appropriate rank is still to be appointed to investigate the case.

But what have Merseyside police done to address the grave issues raised in Mr. Herring's complaint? Some 15 months after the collapse of the case, Mr. Herring has heard nothing, and the two police officers are still going about their business. Mr. Herring's life has been devastated by the sequence of events, yet he has nothing to show for what has happened to him, except extreme anxiety and a complete and utter loss of health and peace of mind.

I cannot underestimate the consequences of this matter for Mr. Herring's family: they have been truly catastrophic. Having destroyed his life, Merseyside police are seeking to preclude Mr. Herring from gaining access to his pension. It is accepted that such action may be considered only against persons who have committed a grave and serious crime. Is complaining about a noisy party a grave and serious crime?

I seek justice for Mr. Herring. I want the original complaint against him quashed in the light of the fact that one of the key complainants was a known perjurer. I want to know what action Merseyside police intend to take against the two police officers and Mr. Smerdon, and why they did not act earlier. I want to know why an officer who was found guilty of a minor incivility has been dismissed, while other officers, who have committed more serious offences, are treated more leniently. Is the Home Secretary confident that Merseyside police are capable of executing disciplinary procedures in a fair and equitable manner?

I want to know to what extent freemasonry is a factor in Mr. Herring's downfall. It is rare for a person who plays the masonic card to be found out. In this case, a tape recording exists in which Mr. Smerdon is heard invoking the support of the freemasons movement. Has Mr. Smerdon enjoyed the assistance of Merseyside police in other matters? Are we comfortable that police officers who commit perjury are allowed to work among the public, and may be—and have been—called to give evidence on oath? Is it fair that the Home Secretary should be the final arbiter of police disciplinary and employment matters? Should he have the power to overturn the findings of a tribunal, which is what happened to Mr. Herring?

I note that the Home Secretary has ordered a review of the PCA. I hope that it will consider the issues surrounding the discipline of police officers, the prosecution of police officers who have done wrong, and the role of tribunals and of the Home Secretary. I also hope that an open and fair system of police discipline will emerge for the benefit of other officers, but I suspect that it will be too late to help Mr. Herring.

1.47 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Alun Michael)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) on securing the debate, and on her coherent account of a complex matter. It is difficult to provide a response that is both brief and adequate. A short question often deserves a detailed answer. In the little time available to me, I will respond as fully as I can. I will, however, respond in more detail when I write to her. Each question that she asked at the end of her speech could provide a thesis for a chapter of responses.

The issues surrounding police complaints, discipline and corruption are important and complex. The thrust of my hon. Friend's argument is that members of Merseyside police are corrupt and have committed perjury. Those are extremely grave allegations, and, if they can be substantiated, the Government will whole-heartedly support all efforts to bring such people to justice.

My hon. Friend made a general point about the need for a reform of the system. I assure her that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has responded to the House on the report of the Home Affairs Select Committee. Steps are in train to reform and improve the police complaints system and disciplinary procedures.

My hon. Friend specifically mentioned the existence of a tape recording. She underlined the importance of the evidence provided by it. I am informed that, to date, Mr. Herring has not provided that tape to the investigating officer, to the supervising member of the PCA or to an independent professional organisation for analysis. Through my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby, I urge Mr. Herring to enable that tape to be examined. It is crucial for the consideration of the points that have been raised.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas

I want to raise one matter about the investigating officer, who has not yet been appointed. When he or she is appointed, the tape can be submitted, but until then it cannot be.

Mr. Michael

It is a question of the pros and cons of the process. As to the appointment of an officer to undertake the work, there were substantial delays in progressing the investigation, which is regrettable. One difficulty is that, on being told that a chief inspector had been appointed as the investigating officer under the supervision of the PCA, Mr. Herring said that his complaint included officers of a higher rank, and a higher-ranking investigating officer had to be appointed.

I believe that that difficulty has been resolved, in that a complaint against a superintendent has been completed and a report has been made to the PCA. No action will be taken on that report until the allegations against other officers have been dealt with. I understand that Mr. Herring accepted that a chief inspector is of a suitable rank for that investigation. However, a further difficulty has arisen, which suggests that it may be necessary to appoint yet another investigating officer. The PCA therefore set in train the necessary action to find an alternative.

If a complainant fails to co-operate with an investigation within a reasonable time, the PCA will agree to undertake a limited investigation without that co-operation. In this case, the PCA was concerned about the nature of Mr. Herring's allegations, and it was well aware of the potential importance to the investigation of the tape that was made of the incident by the complainant himself.

It is for those reasons that the PCA gave Mr. Herring an exceptional length of time to provide the tape. It also took the unusual step of enabling Mr. Herring to co-operate without handing his tape over to the Merseyside police, which would be the normal way forward. Handing over the tape is crucial for the completion of the inquiry. Two alternatives are open.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. If the hon. Lady wants the Minister—or any other hon. Member—to give way, she should stand up and ask him to do so.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas

I want to respond to some of the Minister's points. I receive all Mr. Herring's mail, and I am acutely aware of all of the correspondence that he has received and of what it contains. Moreover, because of Mr. Herring's health difficulties, I have undertaken to respond to his mail on his behalf. There have been considerable frustrations about the appointment of an officer of suitable rank, but, as far as I am aware, there are no outstanding matters between Mr. Herring and the PCA.

Mr. Michael

My understanding is that there is one very important piece of outstanding business—the provision of the tape.

Our debate shows that simple questions sometimes need complex answers, and that the Chamber is not always the ideal forum in which to do so. Mr. Herring has two options that will help to progress his complaint. First, if he agrees to meet the new investigating officer and the PCA supervisor to establish the precise complaints that he wishes to be investigated—and if he gives the investigating officer his tape recording of the incident in question—a full investigation will be completed, and the PCA will assess the investigating officer's report to ensure that the work was undertaken thoroughly and impartially. When the PCA is satisfied that that is the case, it will issue an interim statement to that effect.

If there is a possibility of a criminal charge against any officer, the file will be submitted to the Crown Prosecution Service for its consideration and action. If there is no criminal charge, the file will be submitted to the assistant chief constable of Merseyside police, who will prepare his recommendations for any disciplinary action or training for the relevant officers.

These recommendations and the full file will be submitted to the Police Complaints Authority for a final decision on any disciplinary action.

Secondly, if Mr. Herring does not agree both to a statement clearly specifying his complaints, and to handing over his tapes to the investigating officer, the investigating officer will complete a limited investigation on the information available. In that event, the investigating officer would write to Mr. Herring giving a clear deadline by which his co-operation would be required.

I must reinforce the point that, unless the full evidence is in the hands of the Police Complaints Authority to enable the investigating officer to have possession of that evidence and to be able to undertake his inquiries, it is difficult to understand how progress can be made.

That is only one element of the issues raised by my hon. Friend. I have a great deal of sympathy with Mr. Herring's situation. Whatever the rights and wrongs of his claims, the loss of his job, the stress of the court appearance on an assault charge, the separation from and recent untimely death of his wife are traumas from which recovery will inevitably be painful.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas

My hon. Friend made a comment that is factually untrue. Mr. Herring was never separated from his wife, although it is true that she suffered an untimely death. That is indicative of the sort of unsubstantiated information that has been passed around about Mr. Herring, and which does nothing to assist his character or reputation.

Mr. Michael

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for correcting that factual information. She raised a debate covering complex and personal issues affecting an individual. She raised that debate in this Chamber, so I must try to respond in this Chamber, but it is not always the best place for proper discussion of complex and personal issues.

It would not be productive in the time available to engage in an argument with my hon. Friend on precisely what happened outside the Blundellsands tennis club on the night of 11 and 12 September 1993. She will appreciate that other points of view exist as to the facts and their interpretation. The Chamber is neither a court of law nor a tribunal, in which different views can be adequately heard and adjudicated upon. That task must be undertaken through the police complaints procedure.

The conclusion of an investigation of the complaint against Mr. Herring led to his being charged with four disciplinary offences. Following the events described, a hearing was arranged for January 1995, when Mr. Herring was represented by counsel, although he himself was unable to attend. There was an adjournment, and in May 1995 the hearing was resumed.

After hearing the evidence, the chief constable found Mr. Herring guilty of all four charges, and there was a further adjournment to allow him to see the most recent appraisal report on him. At the resumed hearing in June 1995, the chief constable, having taken account of the circumstances of the offences, evidence of mitigation and Mr. Herring's record of service, required him to resign from the force for two of the offences, and fined him for the other two.

That is when Mr. Herring exercised his right of appeal to the Home Secretary. As is normal in the majority of cases, the appeal was referred to a tribunal to inquire into the case. Appeal tribunals comprise three members. They are chaired by a lawyer, usually a QC, and the other two members are a retired chief constable and a retired member of the Police Federation.

My hon. Friend implied that determination of the disciplinary appeal amounts to ratification of the views and recommendations of the tribunal. I assure her from personal experience that that is not so. The statutory position—it is a responsibility in law—is that the Home Secretary is obliged to make his own decision. I can testify from my experience since the general election that that is what actually happens.

In determining the appeal, the Home Secretary took account of the tribunal's views, as he is required to do. He is also required to consider any matters of concern identified by the tribunal, and I understand that that is what happened. In his view, there was evidence of mistaken information, but, overall and most crucially, he was satisfied that none of the areas of concern identified by the tribunal was such as to have resulted in unfairness to Mr. Herring.

The Home Secretary considered all the material that had been submitted with the appeal, including particulars of the offences, Mr. Herring's record of service and evidence of character, and evidence relating to Mr. Herring's mental state at the time of the incident. Mr. Herring also submitted a letter for consideration in his appeal.

My hon. Friend said that the Home Secretary's decision not to accept the tribunal's recommendation to allow the appeal was suspected to have been the result of direct intervention by the chief constable. I can state categorically—

It being Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Sitting suspended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 10 (Wednesday sittings), till half-past Two o'clock.