HC Deb 21 April 1999 vol 329 cc1021-6

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

10.28 pm
Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble)

This is the first time that I have had the privilege of speaking in an Adjournment debate. I regret having to raise the matters that I intend to raise on the Floor of the House this evening, but they are of serious concern to my constituents in Lancashire and ought to be placed on the record of the House of Commons. However, I recognise at the outset that there is probably only a limited amount that my hon. Friend the Minister of State can do when he responds to my contribution.

The issue starts with a constituent of mine, Mrs. Lorraine Sharrock, who lives in Lostock Hall. For three or four years in the mid-1990s, she received a series of malicious telephone calls at her home and her place of work. Despite the fact that she changed her telephone number and went ex-directory, and changed the number of her workplace telephone, the calls persisted. She contacted Lancashire police, which carried out an, investigation.

Eventually, on 7 July 1998, Stephen Lawman was convicted of making eight malicious phone calls to Mrs. Sharrock between March and July 1996. Those were a sample of calls that the police were able to track down and prove before the court. Mr. Stephen Lawman was at that time a detective inspector working in the section dealing with the tracing of malicious phone calls at the Lancashire police headquarters at Hutton, which is also in my constituency. One can imagine my constituent's concern and horror when the very people to whom she went to seek to track the source of the malicious phone calls ended up harbouring the person who was responsible for them.

Stephen Lawman appealed against his conviction at Preston magistrates court, and Lancashire police decided in their wisdom that he should continue to serve as a police officer. He was not suspended, although he was moved to other duties.

In the autumn of last year, I had a meeting with David Smith, assistant chief constable of Lancashire police, and in charge of discipline, to express my concern at the fact that, despite Mr. Lawman's conviction, he had not been suspended. I recognise that it would have been very difficult for the police to change their decision following the conviction, as an appeal hearing was pending, but felt it my duty to express my concern, and that of many of my constituents, at such a decision.

In February, Mr. Lawman withdrew his appeal, and Lancashire police suspended him from duty pending the outcome of disciplinary proceedings. That hearing was held in front of the chief constable, Pauline Clare, on 16 March. After that hearing, the chief constable announced the decision that Detective Inspector Lawman would be demoted to the post of sergeant. He would therefore continue to serve as a police officer in Lancashire—and a senior police officer at that.

I must make it clear that, at that point, I spoke very strongly of my abhorrence at the decision of Lancashire police and the fact that it undermined the confidence of many people in the police force. Many women in Lancashire in particular feel that their position has been undermined, given that a police officer working in the very department responsible for tracing malicious phone calls was convicted of making such calls, but continued to serve as a senior officer of Lancashire police.

I recognise that the regulations in the disciplinary code have been followed and that the decision probably cannot be overturned or challenged in any way. I now understand that the time limits for Sergeant Lawman—as he now is—to appeal against that decision have expired. That appeal, had it taken place, would have been to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who is also a Lancashire Member of Parliament.

I raise this matter to put on the record my serious concern at what has happened. For more than 22 years before I came to this place, I served as an officer of various tribunals in the north-west of England, dealing with appeals on local taxation. Over those years, I must have dealt with thousands of appeals, and helped to give advice to tribunals and draft reasons for decisions in thousands of cases. I recognise that, from time to time, rogue decisions are inevitable in any judicial process.

I have tried to find out the reasons for the chief constable's decision and I was read a transcript of it yesterday, by one of the solicitors at Lancashire police headquarters. I must point out that I tried to arrange a meeting with the chief constable and the chair of the police authority, but failed to do so.

One of the reasons for the chief constable allowing Stephen Lawman to continue as a serving officer in Lancashire is that he has a wife and family who should not be punished for his actions. I should be interested to know whether that is a valid factor to take into account in disciplinary hearings, because the implication is that an officer without children, or who is not married, would not be dealt with in the same way as other officers.

I have serious concerns about the signal that has been sent to my constituents. I met Mrs. Sharrock and her husband on Friday evening to explain what I would be talking about tonight. She is still very angry and upset about the way in which the police have dealt with this case. She remains concerned about what work Sergeant Lawman is doing, as he is still working at Lancashire police headquarters.

I have spoken to a number of police officers in the past few weeks. Every officer with whom I have discussed the case is appalled and disgusted by the decision and feels, as I do, that it reflects badly on them as police officers. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made a number of speeches in the autumn that made it clear that he was concerned that disciplinary proceedings for police officers should be firm and fair, but we should send to the general public the signal that they can continue to have confidence in the police, and that wrongdoing in the police service will not be tolerated and will be dealt with most severely.

The Home Office is reviewing disciplinary procedures within the police service. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister whether the circumstances of the Stephen Lawman case can be examined in detail by the Department to see what lessons can be learned. I should like the code of practice used by police authorities and chief police officers to deal with disciplinary offences to be clear, because I am very concerned. I have spent a lot of time looking into this case, and there may be others that have been dealt with similarly.

One of the things that have saddened me in the past few weeks is the comment, which has been made by a number of my constituents, that the police look after their own. I do not believe that that is true in the majority of cases, and Lancashire police would be angry if that were thought to be so. However, this particular case, and the way that it has been handled, has sent all the wrong signals—about the police force, about women making complaints about how cases have been dealt with and about the seriousness with which the police service takes such crimes.

The making of malicious phone calls to women is not a trivial crime, even though it may be dealt with by a fine in a magistrates court. Such calls cause a great deal of distress. Although it was proved in court that eight calls were made by Stephen Lawman over three or four months, calls were made over three or four years and there were many of them.

My constituent's dissatisfaction with the outcome of the case is profound and I feel that it is my duty, as her Member of Parliament, to ensure that that is placed on the record in the House of Commons.

10.40 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng)

My hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) has exercised a time-honoured right to raise a matter of serious concern in his constituency on the Floor of the House. Anyone taking the trouble, as I have done, to acquaint themselves with the facts of this case will understand why he has chosen to take this course of action, which he has exercised with great care, dignity, balance and moderation, and he is to be commended.

The conduct of former Detective Inspector Lawman was appalling. There can be no excuse for what he did. I can find no mitigating circumstance. Anyone concerned, as the Government have to be, with the reputation and integrity of the police service would be concerned about this case. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is acquainted with the facts of the case, and shares my concern. The Government are absolutely determined to stem any erosion of public confidence in the police service. That is why, at the beginning of this month, the Home Secretary introduced measures to modernise and make more effective the procedures for dealing with police discipline.

Lawman's case was dealt with under the old procedure, but some of the issues that it raised show the relevance of the new measures that we have introduced. We cannot say whether the outcome would have been different, because the operation of the discipline procedure is a matter for chief constables. They are entrusted with the responsibility of making a judgment about whether an officer is guilty of a discipline charge and what punishment should be imposed.

It would be inappropriate for me to comment on the punishment imposed on Mr. Lawman by the chief constable of the Lancashire constabulary. I shall ensure, however, that she reads what has been said in this debate, so that she is fully aware of the concerns that have been expressed. At the same time, I shall invite her to write to my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble with any comments that she thinks may help him to understand her decision.

Before I say more about the new discipline procedures, I think it would be right, albeit at the risk of repetition, for me to go back over some of the details in Mr. Lawman's case that have been provided to my officials by Lancashire constabulary. As I said, these issues clearly show how the new measures will make a real difference.

Lawman was convicted of the criminal offence of using public telecommunications systems for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another, under section 43 of the Telecommunications Act 1984. The behaviour that he was charged with was restricted to calls made during the last 12 months of the total period of conduct complained of by Mrs. Sharrock. That is because, under section 103 of the 1984 Act, proceedings for an offence under section 43 must be brought within 12 months of the offence.

I understand that, during the 12-month period, nine calls to Mrs. Sharrock were traced by British Telecommunications engineers back to Mr. Lawman's home number, and that these were silent calls. Such calls have an insidious nature all of their own. Mr. Lawman received the heaviest penalty available for an offence under section 43, which is a fine of £1,000. He was also ordered to pay £350 in costs.

The nine silent telephone calls were only part of the matters of which Mrs. Sharrock complained. Other telephone calls, of an offensive nature, were alleged to have been made before the 12-month period. Lancashire constabulary investigated these allegations and put the evidence before the Crown Prosecution Service, whose responsibility it is to decide whether to institute criminal proceedings.

Although section 43 of the 1984 Act was not an option because of the time limit, another possibility was an offence of actual bodily harm based on psychological harm. The Crown Prosecution Service decided, however, that there was insufficient evidence for the purposes of bringing proceedings. The House will appreciate that I am unable to comment on that decision.

Following conviction on 7 July 1998, Mr. Lawman indicated that he would appeal. On 31 July 1998, he was charged with the discipline offence of criminal conduct, in that he had been found guilty of the criminal offence under the Telecommunications Act 1984. On 16 February 1999, he abandoned his appeal, and two days later he was suspended from duty.

There is a wide power to suspend an officer under both the old police discipline procedure and the new one. In the event of an allegation from which it appears that an officer may have committed a disciplinary or criminal offence, he can be suspended at least until the disciplinary matter is resolved. The reason given for not suspending Mr. Lawman earlier is, in effect, that he had an outstanding appeal. The chief constable may want to consider elaborating on that when writing to my hon. Friend.

On 16 March 1999, Mr. Lawman appeared before the chief constable to answer the discipline charge. He pleaded guilty, and the chief constable reduced his rank to that of sergeant. As I have said, responsibility for making the decision rested with the chief constable alone, and I cannot comment on it.

The disciplinary charge brought against Mr. Lawman was confined to the matters that caused his criminal conviction. The deputy chief constable decided that it would be inappropriate to bring additional disciplinary charges against Mr. Lawman in relation to Mrs. Sharrock's other charges. A factor in that decision was the provision in section 104 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 that an officer brought before the courts on a criminal charge should not thereafter face a disciplinary charge that was, in substance, the same. The reason for that provision was avoidance of what is known as "double jeopardy"—trying someone twice for the same offence.

In hearing the disciplinary charge against Mr. Lawman, the chief constable therefore had before her only matters relating to Mr. Lawman's criminal conviction, not Mrs. Sharrock's other complaints. Whether the chief constable would have imposed a different punishment if the substance of the discipline charge had been wider cannot be known. The "double jeopardy" rule was undoubtedly a factor, however, and was one of the things that we changed at the beginning of this month in the Police (Conduct) Regulations 1999, made under the Police Act 1996.

We have lowered the standard of proof required at a disciplinary hearing from the criminal standard of "beyond reasonable doubt" to the civil standard of "on the balance of probabilities". I hope my hon. Friend will accept that that in itself makes the procedure more effective, but it has also made it possible to remove the "double jeopardy" restriction. That means that, in a case in which criminal proceedings against an officer are restricted to matters where the evidence is sufficient to meet the higher standard of proof, it will in future be possible to charge him with other related matters where the evidence is sufficient only to meet the lower standard of proof. Forces can now bring discipline charges that reflect a wider pattern of misconduct. That option was not available under the old procedure, when Mr. Lawman's case was dealt with.

Another new measure is the fast-track procedure for dealing swiftly with police officers who are caught committing serious criminal offences. Cases under that procedure will be heard within six weeks of being identified, in advance of criminal proceedings.

I understand that Mrs. Sharrock has been through a distressing experience, and feels deeply about the way in which Mr. Lawman has been dealt with. I abhor the criminal conduct of this officer. He has not only caused Mrs. Sharrock deep distress, but brought shame on himself and cast a cloud over the decent, hard-working officers with whom he served. No one should for a moment forget the enormous responsibilities with which police officers are burdened, or the fact that the overwhelming majority discharge them with honour and distinction. Mr. Lawman did not. The fact that he continues to serve among those officers who day in and day out do, however surprising it may be, is—as I am sure my hon. Friend will understand—a matter for the chief constable alone. The Government have shown, and will continue to show, absolute commitment to effective police discipline by making available to chief officers improved machinery to deal with individuals who have shown themselves unfit to remain as police officers, should they choose to use it. In this instance, the chief constable chose not to use the powers available to her.

There are lessons to be learned from this case, and we shall reflect on them. Mrs. Sharrock, in the meanwhile, has our deepest sympathy and understanding, and our commitment to ensure that the lessons of her case are learned and acted upon.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes to Eleven o 'clock.