HC Deb 10 November 1999 vol 337 cc1089-95 12.30 pm
Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East)

I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce a brief debate on a serious issue that is causing great concern to many of my constituents and the people of Teesside as a whole: Operation Lancet.

Operation Lancet is an inquiry overseen by the Police Complaints Authority into alleged malpractice and corruption in Cleveland police. My speech reflects the results of tabling many parliamentary questions over the past eight months and detailed investigative journalism on the part of local newspaper reporters who are also appalled by the way in which the inquiry has descended into farce. In my speech, I shall give the background to the inquiry and set out the lessons we should learn. I shall also make some suggestions regarding changes and improvements to the procedures and policies governing such inquiries. In addition, I shall issue a call for action to complete the Lancet process by imposing a time limit on its work.

The inquiry is wide ranging: so far, 560 disciplinary notices have been issued to a total of 60 officers, informing them that they are under investigation. The inquiry has been running for more than two years and has cost the council tax payers of Cleveland almost £2.5 million. Eight Cleveland detectives have been suspended, including Detective Superintendent Ray Mallon, the man whose zero tolerance approach to policing led to Cleveland police achieving a greater reduction in crime than any other force in 1997.

In December 1997, Mr. Mallon was suspended from duty and accused, in the words of Robert Turnbull, the then deputy chief constable, of activity that could be construed as criminal". That allegation has been hanging over Mr. Mallon for more than two years; his expenses and his private life have been probed. However, like the other suspended officers, he has yet to have a single disciplinary or criminal charge brought against him as a result of Lancet.

In the meantime, the burglary rate in Mr. Mallon's former beat, Middlesbrough, has risen by almost 30 per cent., and street crime and muggings are on the increase. That Cleveland ratepayers have now been handed one of the highest police precept increases in Britain is due in no small part to the cost of Lancet. Part of my constituency postbag shows that a key element of community concern is Lancet, its impact on police morale and the knock-on effects on my constituents.

Operation Lancet displays alarming similarities to a PCA probe into allegations against police officers on Humberside. That investigation ended a month before Mr. Mallon was suspended: it took six years to complete, cost £4 million pounds and resulted in more than 20 officers being investigated, but ended without a single disciplinary or criminal charge being brought. It appears that the PCA is able to operate with an open time scale, an open remit and an open cheque book. There is no concern about the effect that lengthy suspensions and damaging unproven allegations can have on officers who have spent many years serving the public.

In Operation Lancet, it is of great concern that the majority of suspensions and disciplinary notices have arisen from complaints from known criminals or those facing criminal charges. In some cases, those criminals have not, as might have been expected, made complaints to their solicitors or the courts; instead, their complaints have emerged after Lancet officers visited them in prison. It is crazy that hard-working detectives who have dramatically reduced crime by targeting and locking up offenders now find themselves suspended on the word of criminals whom they put behind bars. Unfortunately, it appears that Lancet is being used within Cleveland police force as an excuse to settle old scores and petty jealousies. Office politics has led to elderly people in my constituency suffering from crime and the fear of crime.

No one, least of all me, is suggesting that allegations of malpractice by police officers should be ignored. However, I share the concerns of Lord Mackenzie, a former serving senior police officer, that Operation Lancet has not been properly ring-fenced. Rather than being a tightly focused operation, the probe is taking on the appearance of an expedition to a hitherto unexplored river, as explorers investigate every minor tributary.

I am also concerned by the way in which senior officers can launch inquiries such as Lancet but escape future accountability. Ray Mallon and other senior officers were suspended from duty by the then deputy chief constable of the Cleveland force, Robert Turnbull. If Mr. Turnbull had grave concerns or, indeed, any sense of duty or responsibility, he would surely have seen the inquiry through. Instead, he took the opportunity to tell his employers, the police authority, that he wanted to retire; he was allowed to do so only 20 months into his five-year contract.

Mr. Turnbull's retirement did not last long: within weeks, he had applied for and was promptly appointed to the post of deputy commissioner for the sunny Turks and Caicos Islands—a few thousand miles away from Cleveland and Operation Lancet. The Cleveland public have not been given a satisfactory explanation of the circumstances surrounding Mr. Turnbull's rapid departure; nor have they been allowed to see the reference provided by the chief constable of Cleveland police that helped Mr. Turnbull to land his job in the sun. It is generally known that serious allegations have been made in respect of Mr. Turnbull's conduct, but he will not have to answer them or justify his decision to suspend Mr. Mallon and his colleagues.

Within the past month, Mr. Andrew Timpson, the head of Lancet and chief constable of Warwickshire, has also had to leave his employment under a cloud. He, too, should have to answer questions about issues that he dealt with in his time, one of the most serious of which emerged only this week.

I am informed that, when Mr. Turnbull left to seek his fortune in the Caribbean, a colleague of his, Mr. David Earnshaw, was appointed by Cleveland's chief constable to assume responsibility for complaints and disciplinary matters within the force. That means that Mr. Earnshaw now has direct day-to-day involvement with the Lancet inquiry and that he would adjudicate in the inquiry and advise the Lancet team. However, I have learned that, prior to his departure, Mr. Timpson was clearly told by several people that Mr. Earnshaw could be implicated in serious allegations about his role and conduct.

I have been told by solicitors acting for Ray Mallon that Mr. Earnshaw was to have been the recipient of a regulation 6 notice, which would have told him that investigations were to be carried out to establish the truth or otherwise of the allegations. However, it appears that Mr. Earnshaw has not yet been served with that notice.

It is incumbent on the House to ask why such a senior officer has been allowed to remain in post with the specific remit held by Mr. Earnshaw when there is doubt about his conduct. That prompts the questions of why the notice has not been proceeded with and whether Mr. Earnshaw is a suitable person to occupy his current position. Only Cleveland's chief constable and Mr. Timpson can answer those questions, and it appears likely that Mr. Timpson's answer would be the most relevant.

The problems do not end there. More people are jumping ship: in the past few weeks, Mr. Richard Brunstrom, who was effectively number two in the Cleveland police authority, has left to take up a new post in north Wales. The Police Complaints Authority, which appointed Mr. Timpson, has replaced him with Mr. Lloyd Clarke, the deputy chief constable of west Yorkshire. He faces the unenviable task of wading through the 26,000 documents that Operation Lancet has produced so far. The Police Complaints Authority is to investigate Mr. Timpson after serious allegations by members of his staff.

It is wrong that senior officers such as Mr. Turnbull, and possibly Mr. Timpson, who make the serious and far-reaching decisions to suspend serving officers, can escape accountability by retiring or stepping down. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will ensure that, in future, officers who are members of the Association of Chief Police Officers, and who make such serious decisions, are accountable for their actions—whether they are still in service or not—when such inquiries are completed.

My hon. Friend should also revise the way in which police investigate themselves. In the case of Mr. Mallon, it is no longer a matter of establishing the truth but of desperately trying to justify the enormous cost, time, manpower and hype that Operation Lancet has generated.

It would focus minds if the Police Complaints Authority were given a fixed budget rather than an open cheque book that is underwritten by the hapless council tax payer. It would mean that inquiries were not launched without firm evidence on which to base them. There should also be a limit on the time a police officer can be suspended from duty without charges being brought. I have met and listened to Cleveland police officers who have graphically described the devastating impact of such lengthy suspensions on their lives. Marriage break-ups, suicide attempts and severe illnesses have ensued as Lancet continues its seemingly endless task.

I resent it when outsiders, who seem to have no knowledge of Lancet's impact on the morale of serving police officers on Teesside and its generation of a lack of confidence in the police, criticise me for investigating and highlighting those anxieties. If officers who investigate murder and other serious crimes have to work to set limits, why cannot the Police Complaints Authority do the same? Time limits will ensure that the serious step of suspending an officer will not be taken without solid evidence for doing so.

No one wants to protect the small number of officers who are corrupt and a disgrace to their badge. However, a better regulated and more focused Police Complaints Authority should devote time and resources to rooting out corrupt cops instead of making sweeping accusations, which are never proven, against many officers. Too many people wring their hands and claim that Lancet and similar inquiries should be allowed to run their course, whatever the cost, the impact on the public, the public purse and public confidence. I do not agree with that view; enough is enough. The people of Teesside want a police force that investigates and roots out crime, not a force whose senior management team is made to devote its energies to investigating every nook and cranny of its force.

Ray Mallon and his colleagues have been suspended for more than two years. In my opinion, and that of many of my constituents, that is long enough for those investigating to charge them or allow them to return to work. I believe that Ray Mallon is an honest and sincere man, who merely wants to return to doing what he is best at: rooting out and eradicating crime on the streets and in the communities of Teesside.

I do not want the farce to continue, and Mr. Mallon to become a modern Captain Dreyfus. The majority of police in Cleveland and throughout the country are honest, hard-working officers who deserve better than to have their reputations sullied at public expense by convicted criminals, unfocused fishing expeditions and senior officers who jump ship rather than shoulder their responsibilities.

I am grateful for the opportunity of putting on record for the first time many of the comments that I have made in private. The matter that we are considering is crucial to my constituents—both police and public.

12.48 pm
Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar) for giving me his permission to contribute to the debate. He is a good friend of many years' standing, and we have discussed Operation Lancet often and at length. I have had to tell him that I believe him to be wrong. I fear that I must repeat that view today.

I have tried to explain to my hon. Friend that if the Minister and I investigate the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), the shadow spokesman, for nefarious activity, the hon. Gentleman will want to know two things: how much we know and how much we are in danger of discovering. That would give him the opportunity—as he is an ex-policeman—to cover his tracks. We are trying to deal with such a process.

I have a copy of a letter from the solicitor for Superintendent Raymond Mallon, who is my constituent. I have read the solicitor's assertions and also the letter that was sent to him on 25 March. That letter states plainly the nature of the allegations against his client. The solicitor has not contradicted them or made a counter proposal. He has not even acknowledged the letter other than to send a letter that makes a disclosure about regulation 6 disciplinary notices.

My hon. Friend has issued a press release in his usual efficient way—I do not mean that disparagingly. It claims that hatreds and jealousies are endemic in the force and that morale is plummeting. I shall quote not policemen's views about Cleveland constabulary, but parts of this year's report of Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary. The inspector was impressed with the standard of crime and disorder reduction", and with the partnership proposals. The report states that commitment is strong, the expertise of staff is impressive". It continues: Her Majesty's Inspector is fully satisfied with the probity of complaints investigation by the Force … Her Majesty's Inspector found morale to be generally buoyant with the vast majority of staff wanting to 'get on with the job' … Her Majesty's Inspector continues to have confidence in the Force and its leadership. The inspector also found bitterness and depth of feeling that he has rarely witnessed before", but those feelings were expressed by the people under investigation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East makes the point that much time and £2.5 million have been spent on the investigation, which continues.

What does my hon. Friend want to do: throw the time and the money out of the window? That does not make sense to me. Scrutiny of this kind must be completed. One cannot apply a guillotine to such inquiries because we do not know how long the investigations will take. I must say candidly that the number of questions raised and the media concentration prompted by those questions have prolonged this investigation and incurred more cost.

This is about washing one's laundry in public. The essential point is that, at the end of the day, the laundry must be clean. We cannot put a time limit on the inquiry process. I ask my hon. Friend to reconsider and not to place himself in a position where, quite unwittingly, he may become an ally of those who do not wish to be discovered.

12.51 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar) on securing this debate and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) for his contribution—although I cannot agree with his suggestion that the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) would seek to evade justice for his political crimes, past and present. That remark was totally uncharacteristic of my hon. Friend and I cannot associate myself with it.

I will make only two points of substance: first, we must inquire into issues of this kind in order to establish the truth; and secondly, such inquiries should take place as rapidly as possible. I begin by referring to the state of the Cleveland force. Her Majesty's inspector recently published his inspection report into Cleveland police. It found that overall recorded crime in Cleveland increased by 0.1 per cent. during 1998–99 and that violent crime accounted for 6.3 per cent. of all crimes recorded in Cleveland, compared with 11.9 per cent. nation wide.

There is nothing to suggest any connection between the matters under investigation and the positive approach to policing in Cleveland, which I fully support and to which I know the force remains committed. I understand further from Cleveland police that crime decreased by another 2 per cent. in the first six months of this year and is now at a 10-year low.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North said in his speech, the recent report by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary described general morale in Cleveland as "buoyant". There is no reason to doubt the validity of that assessment. I have noted the strength of support for the positive policing methods employed by Cleveland police.

The Cleveland police budget is £83.3 million for 1999–2000, which is an increase of 3.6 per cent. over last year. Latest estimates indicate that, in 1999–2000, Cleveland police will spend £145.90 per head of population, which is above the estimated average of £115.29 for English shire counties. Cleveland police had 1,400 officers at the end of March 1999.

That is the background to the inquiry. As my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East said, Operation Lancet—the investigation of Cleveland police—resulted from disturbing allegations of serious misconduct against a number of officers. It is a fundamental and important principle that such allegations are investigated thoroughly, and I am pleased that the force has acted robustly to deal with these matters.

I must seriously contest only one point in my hon. Friend's speech. There is no substance in the suggestion that the inquiry is about justifying past expenditure rather than trying to get to the facts of the case. I believe profoundly that all concerned are trying to get to the facts and address important and difficult issues.

My hon. Friend is right to identify the fact that several officers have been suspended. A number of possible criminal and disciplinary matters are being addressed and eight officers remain suspended from duty. As my hon. Friend knows, matters involving the suspension of police officers before 1 April 1999 are governed by the Police (Discipline) Regulations 1985, which state that an officer may be suspended from the force by his chief officer if it appears that he may have committed a disciplinary offence. Suspensions among the Cleveland police are reviewed regularly. Unless the chief officer decides otherwise, the suspensions will continue either until it is decided not to bring disciplinary charges or until the case is resolved. That is, quite properly, a matter of judgment for the chief constable of Cleveland police.

It is not appropriate for me, as a Home Office Minister, to comment about on-going criminal or disciplinary investigations. I shall not follow my hon. Friend in reciting the details that he gave, as comments on my part could prejudice any possible criminal proceedings. That convention is well established, and I intend to respect it today. The Home Secretary has a role in the disciplinary process as the appellate authority, and may be called upon in that capacity to consider any future disciplinary appeals from officers arising from the inquiry.

That is my first point: the inquiry is necessary and it is taking place. We must discover the full facts. I believe that is the only basis upon which the people of Cleveland can be truly confident that any concerns about the situation have been investigated and considered properly.

My second point—and here my views are alongside those expressed by my hon. Friend—relates to timing. This is a wide-ranging inquiry and one of the largest supervised by the Police Complaints Authority. The length of the investigation is a matter for the investigating officer and the PCA, but it is in no one's interest to prolong it any longer than necessary. There has been close consultation with the Crown Prosecution Service throughout.

I cannot agree with the suggestion that a time limit should be imposed, but I can associate myself with my hon. Friend's sentiments that it is desirable for all concerned that the inquiry be concluded as rapidly as possible. That is an entirely understandable and fair point. However, I emphasise that the desire to reach a conclusion must not inhibit the need to get all the facts into the open and to conduct the inquiry in the fullest possible way. That must be the first consideration.

Finally, on the general issues that my hon. Friend raised regarding the complaints procedure. He referred to time limiting the inquiry and the suspensions of police officers in certain circumstances, and raised issues of accountability, cost and expenditure. Those points are legitimate when considering the working of the complaints system. Some of the issues that my hon. Friend raised in relation to this inquiry extend to other inquiries that will take place in other parts of the country.

Some of these concerns were addressed by the Macpherson inquiry following the death of Stephen Lawrence. The Government understand the anxiety about the police investigating themselves. That is why the Government accepted the recommendations of the Home Affairs Committee and the Macpherson report that the Home Office should examine the feasibility of an independent investigation of complaints against the police and various other processes and procedures. Our consultants, KPMG, are carrying out that work and will report by spring next year. We will decide how to proceed on the basis of those findings and of the contributions made by my hon. Friends and others about this and further cases.

There is no doubt that a complaints process in which everybody has confidence is critical to the respect and support for the police that exists in communities throughout this country. That is why I take seriously general points about the nature of the complaints process. I shall certainly consider them.

I return to my two fundamental points. First, we must have an inquiry and establish the facts. That is the pre-eminent issue: we must be sure about the exact situation. Secondly, while accepting that constraint, we must move as fast as we can to reveal the information so that any uncertainties and doubts—some of which my hon. Friend referred to—can be resolved effectively.

I know that my remarks will not answer completely the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East. I hope that I have addressed the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North. I look forward to seeing the matter resolved and the Cleveland population's confidence in the Cleveland police strengthened.