HC Deb 20 October 1999 vol 336 cc543-52

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

I ask the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) to wait a moment before opening the debate. Would those hon. Members who are not staying for the debate please leave quickly and quietly? [Interruption.] Would the hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) conclude his conversation?

10.15 pm
Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

I wish to raise once more in the House the case of the death of my constituent Lakhvinder Reel, known affectionately to his family and friends as Ricky. I applied for this debate at the request of the Reel family, and everything that I say tonight reflects their views and is said with their permission.

Sadly, this week we commemorate the second anniversary of Ricky's death, yet two years on we still do not know how he came by his death on that tragic night of 15 October 1997. He went out that evening with his friends to Kingston and was racially attacked and, a week later, his body was found in the Thames. When someone goes missing in suspicious circumstances, it can often be difficult to discover exactly what happened to them. Mr. and Mrs. Reel and I accept that. However, I believe that our system failed, and continues to fail, the Reel family in their search for the truth about how their beloved son met his death two years ago. The purpose of this debate is to learn some of the lessons of the mistakes of the past two years and to seek a way forward in assisting the Reel family in finding the truth and coming to some understanding of what happened to Ricky.

There are two issues that I wish to address. Given the concerns expressed by many hon. Members about this case, I appreciate their wish to intervene. The first issue is the failure of our policing system to respond to the needs of a family experiencing possibly the most traumatic event that can be visited on any family—the loss of a family member. The second is the continuing failure of our legal system to assist the family adequately in their search for the truth of what happened to their son.

Let us examine the policing failures. No matter how unpalatable it is for us to accept, I fear that we must now acknowledge that our policing system has failed the Reel family. This is not an attempt to scapegoat, single out or blame individual police officers or to dismiss the support and hard work of many police officers in the investigation of Ricky's death. I pay tribute to them. However, there were admitted failures in the original investigation of Ricky's death and in the way in which the Metropolitan police service responded to the Reel family. As important, the culture of defensive secrecy that still pervades our policing system clearly undermined, and continues to undermine, the confidence of the Reel family in the capacity of the police to appreciate and respond to their needs.

Let me explain. Over the past decade, the Metropolitan police has changed the way it describes itself from "Metropolitan police force" to "Metropolitan police service". The translation from force to service is intended to symbolise the acknowledgment that our police are not some body of force set above society but a service responsive, and responsible, to our community. Police officers are employed to serve members of the public, but the refusal of the Metropolitan police to operate openly and transparently during this investigation demonstrates that secrecy is still deeply embedded in the Met and that there is an institutional reluctance to accept that the Met is the servant of the public and should therefore be accountable to the public that it is serving.

This continuing culture of secrecy also undermines the potential for building confidence in the Metropolitan police following the Lawrence case and the Macpherson inquiry. The culture of secrecy is best exemplified in this case by the refusal of the Metropolitan police to publish the report of the inquiry of the Police Complaints Authority into its initial investigation of Ricky's death. The recommendations of the Macpherson report state clearly the need for openness and transparency. Recommendation 10 stated: investigating officers reports resulting from public complaints should not attract Public Interest Immunity as a class. They should be disclosed to complainants, subject only to the 'substantial harm' test for withholding disclosure. The PCA report into the Metropolitan police's early investigation of Ricky Reel's death was instigated as a result of a series of formal complaints lodged by Mrs. Reel on 21 November 1997. The PCA appointed officers from the Surrey police in December 1997 to investigate the complaints. That was unusual in that the complaint was being investigated by the Surrey police while the Metropolitan police investigation was continuing. The PCA investigators examined existing and fresh evidence and re-interviewed family, friends, witnesses and police officers involved in the investigation.

From July 1998, the Reel family have sought access to the completed PCA report and its publication. The Metropolitan police are the owners of this report, and it appears that it is their decision whether and to whom it should be released. I find it extraordinary that a matter of such public interest should be left to the decision of the very service that is being investigated.

In 1998, the Reel family, their solicitor, representatives of the Southall monitoring group and I met the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis to seek publication of the report. That was refused. Some information was provided confidentially, but that was deemed to be useless by the family and was returned. Following meetings with the Home Secretary—I am grateful for the support that he has given us throughout this matter—the report was released, in confidence, to Mr. and Mrs. Reel and their solicitor, but not to myself or to their family advisers. We discovered later that the report had been given to a Metropolitan police advisory group—a group of civilians. The family contest that they were ever informed that the report would be distributed in that way.

Even now, the Metropolitan police refuse to release the report publicly, advising the Home Secretary that it is covered by public interest immunity. We have contrary advice, based on the case of the Queen v. Chief Constable of West Midlands Police ex parte. It was established that there was no general public interest immunity in respect of documents coming into existence during investigation into a police complaint. I believe that that defence no longer exists.

In more recent advice to Home Office Ministers, the Metropolitan police repeat the incorrect assertion that the courts have ruled that investigating officers' reports attract public interest immunity. They now pray in aid the coroner, who is concerned that any disclosure of witness statements will affect the inquest into the death of Ricky Reel in November. Does that mean that the PCA report itself will not even be available at the inquest? It is bizarre and tortuous logic to maintain this culture of secrecy. However, so as not to offend the coroner, I shall not draw on any witness statements and I shall name no names in this debate. I simply want to place before the House some of the findings of the PCA report. Lessons must be learned from that report. The House has an important role, which is to learn those lessons and to ensure that all our public services also do so.

The conclusions of the PCA inquiry are multiple. I draw upon some of them. In respect of communications with the Reel family during the initial police investigation, the need for clear, careful and considerate communication with the family was critical in investigations of that kind—as was learned from the Lawrence inquiry. In the investigation, we discovered that Mrs Reel and other members of the family were visited or contacted by telephone by a total of 10 different officers, from 3 different areas"— in the space of two days— Each of them delivering slightly different messages. The report concluded: This situation led to Mrs Reel being provided with conflicting information; being unaware of who was co-ordinating the investigation; believing that there was a conflict"— between two police divisions, and— being unable to gain accurate knowledge of what action was or was not being taken.

The report states that the identification and interviewing of witnesses was vital to the lines of inquiry. It acknowledges that Mrs. Reel herself identified and located some of the witnesses. The inquiry also revealed that, in some instances, no records were checked by the Metropolitan police to confirm or support witness accounts; cross-referencing of information did not take place; and some witnesses were not found until the PCA investigating team found them. Witness information was sometimes not passed on from junior to senior officers. The PCA report states that there were "no debriefings", which would have been common in investigations of this nature; as a result, potentially important information was lost.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

Does my hon. Friend agree that this is an especially sad case, particularly in light of the Lawrence case from which the House had hoped that some lessons had been learned? I have had sight of the report, which has regrettably been kept secret. One of the things that it reveals is that property records at Kingston police station showed that a videotape from British Rail at Kingston had been seized by a policeman and deposited in the property store. The tape was not viewed. Its existence was not drawn to the attention of investigating officers, and on 17 November 1997 the tape was destroyed. Does my hon. Friend share my shock that the police should treat so lightly such vital evidence?

Mr. McDonnell

I can give confirmation on that matter and add to my hon. Friend's remarks. The PCA inquiry reveals that all video evidence from shops was not seized promptly enough to provide information. The PCA states that videotapes from two restaurants may have provided information to the investigation had they been seized promptly", but they were not. The British Rail tape was indeed seized, not viewed and destroyed.

Regarding photographic evidence, the three friends of Ricky Reel were never shown any photos of known racist offenders or offenders who had previously been involved in racial incidents in the area, in an attempt to identify the youths involved in the racial attack on the group.

Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin)

Can my hon. Friend confirm that it is standard practice for police to hold photographs—rogues' galleries—so that when, say, a victim of burglary makes a complaint to the police, he or she can be shown photographs and asked whether they can identify the perpetrators? Would not that practice have helped inquiries in the Reel case? Would it not have helped to secure justice for the victim's family? What happened appears to have been a flagrant dereliction of duty.

Mr. McDonnell

I believe that the PCA investigators considered that that was important. The PCA found: The Met did not initiate this type of inquiry at a timely point in their investigation. The police did not at any time choose to show the photos of known local racist offenders to Ricky's companions on the night. I believe that that was a dereliction of duty and lessons must be learned for future investigations.

On forensic information, the PCA inquiry revealed that no clothing or personal items retrieved from Ricky's body were subject to forensic examination. Details of his clothing were not recorded and the PCA concluded: given the high priority accorded to the search for Ricky, the decision to call a special post mortem and circumstances before his disappearance, the way in which forensic evidence was dealt with is difficult to justify".

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)

Can my hon. Friend confirm whether it is normal police procedure to make such records and to carry out forensic examination? I should have thought that in almost all murder cases, such evidence forms the cornerstone of the investigation.

Mr. McDonnell

The key issue is that the investigation was into a missing person report, but that the link between the racial attack earlier in the evening and Ricky going missing was not made soon enough. Not only was insufficient forensic evidence taken, but, as the PCA states, it is hard to justify why independent expert judgment was not sought on some issues.

On the post mortem, the report makes it clear that no one was clear about who was in control of the post mortem examination and who should have been asking the right questions. On verification at the scene, the report reveals that no forensic analysis was conducted at the area where it was assumed Ricky entered the river; no fingerprint examination was made of the railing nearby and no foliage was taken; and there was no examination of the concrete block, although photographs were taken. The report concludes that forensic examination of the bank would have been helpful: it might or might not have substantiated the claim that the incident was an accident, but it would at least have challenged that theory.

The PCA report states that a key element in the investigation was identifying the means of escape used by the earlier attackers. The inquiry highlighted the role of the No. 281 bus, which the attackers may well have boarded. The Metropolitan police did not check the records of work or tickets on the No. 281. The report states that the No. 281 was the most likely line of inquiry to lead to identification of the youths or other witnesses. The failure to follow up that line of inquiry was described as "a significant omission".

The PCA considered that there was no evidence that the Met progressed lines of inquiry into other potential witnesses from crime reports, arrests, fixed penalty notices on the night, accident reports, or racial incidents reported since 1997. In its general inquiries, the Met made no inquiries in respect of, for example, Ricky's mobile phone usage that evening. The PCA had to investigate the medical evidence relating to Ricky itself. On the involvement of the community in Kingston, the report states the PCA's belief that active and earlier involvement of the racial equality council would have been helpful to provide lines of inquiry in the area.

Overall, the report condemns the investigation because it lacked focus, it eliminated the racial incident earlier in the evening too readily, it lacked thoroughness, and there was a failure to initiate an early reconstruction of what happened that night. There was also confusion over the ownership of the investigation of the racial incident. The investigators came to the conclusion of accidental death before there was corroboration, and there was a failure to adopt policies that would have ensured that professional standards were maintained in the detail of the investigation.

The purpose of the PCA inquiry was to examine the complaints from the family, but it is clear that almost as soon as it became involved, the PCA team took over the investigation and ran it. The PCA inquiry is the basis on which the Met determined what action to take on that specific case and what general lessons to learn for future practice.

One action that stemmed from the early demands of the family was the introduction of a fresh investigation team, and I commend the Metropolitan police for bringing in that new team. However, in addition, the inquiry set out in some detail a series of recommendations for the reform of policing practices, and the problem now is that those recommendations, commendable though they seem, are part of the PCA report, which the Met keeps secret. That completely misses the point of the Macpherson report into the Lawrence case.

Public confidence can be restored and maintained in any public service only if mistakes, when they occur, are honestly admitted, and any remedial action is openly and honestly displayed. In this instance, the failure to publish the PCA report means that we cannot allow for an honest admission of mistakes. More important, it provides no opportunity for the Met to display what lessons it has learned and what improvements have been made. It thus misses completely an opportunity to regain the confidence of the community in our police service.

Such has been the anguish of Mr. and Mrs. Reel over those events that I appreciate why they feel that only a public inquiry can bring into the open what happened to their son, what went wrong with the investigation and how such problems can be avoided in future. I ask the Home Secretary to consider that request.

The inquest will start in November, and the Reel family are asking for financial support to secure their legal representation. I urge the Government to provide that assistance and to do all in their power to provide the family with the resources to determine the truth about what happened to their son.

I believe that we can all learn lessons from the case—lessons about respect, openness and accountability, and about the relationship of public service to the community that it serves. By highlighting the case again—this is, I believe, the eighth time that I have raised it in the House—we may not only help to discover what happened to Ricky that terrible night, but learn the lessons that will help to prevent further tragedies such as Ricky's death. I certainly hope so.

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

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) not only for securing the Adjournment debate but for the way in which he put his case, with a restraint and clarity to which I pay tribute. My hon. Friend has raised important points, and he identified at the beginning of his speech the issues related to the failure of the policing and legal systems, and finished by talking about the need for respect, openness and accountability. Those are appropriate words in this context.

I shall begin where my hon. Friend started, by going through the facts and describing the present position. At the outset, I ought not only to pay tribute to the way in which my hon. Friend made his case, but express the sympathy of the whole House for the Reel family following Ricky' s death.

As my hon. Friend said, the circumstances of Ricky's death will be considered fully at the inquest, which begins on 1 November. As he also said, any criminal investigation within the Metropolitan police district is a matter for the Commissioner, Sir Paul Condon. As the law stands, Ministers do not have powers to intervene—although I understand that Assistant Commissioner John Grieve's racial and violent crime task force inquiry team is investigating Ricky Reel's death.

The case has been widely featured publicly—for example, in the BBC's "Crimewatch UK" programme on 12 October, with an appeal for further witnesses. I take the opportunity to associate myself and the rest of the Government with that request for further witnesses to come forward. I understand that a number of inquiries are being followed up as a result of the programme of 12 October. The on-going investigation is an operational matter for the Metropolitan police and I cannot comment in detail on that, although I shall refer to some of my hon. Friend's points later in my remarks.

The disclosure of the Police Complaints Authority inquiry report is a matter for the Commissioner. As I said, Ministers have no powers to intervene. My hon. Friend is right to say, following his meeting with the Commissioner, that the Commissioner does not propose to publish the report. As my hon. Friend said, the Commissioner agreed to disclose the PCA inquiry report to Mr. and Mrs. Reel and their solicitor on a strictly confidential basis. The Commissioner has informed me that his decision was taken on an exceptional basis and the purpose of the disclosure was to assist the investigation of Ricky's death by helping to ensure that every avenue of inquiry had been pursued. The Commissioner's view is that the disclosure struck the right balance between pursuing the investigative aim and minimising any jeopardy to the forthcoming inquest.

My hon. Friend accurately described the coroner's position. The Metropolitan police specifically sought the views of John Burton, the coroner who will conduct the inquest, on wider disclosure. The coroner has expressed his concern at the prospect of wider disclosure because of the potential effect on inquest witnesses.

As my hon. Friend said, sections of the PCA inquiry report were shown to members of the lay advisory panel to the Metropolitan police. The panel's purpose was to review the investigation to help to ensure that no opportunity or link had been missed. The Commissioner's view was that the PCA inquiry report was relevant to the lay panel's role and that the purpose of disclosure was to assist the investigation.

I understand that Mr. and Mrs. Reel's perception is that they were not consulted about the Met's intention to disclose sections of the report to the panel, and they felt that that was wrong. I am advised by the Met that on 15 February this year, Mr. and Mrs. Reel and their solicitor, Suresh Grover, met two members of the lay advisory panel. The Met's view is that the meeting agreed that the lay panel would recommend that the full PCA inquiry report would be made available to the family and the panel. The lay panel has told the Met that it is concerned about suggestions that Mr. and Mrs. Reel were not consulted about that, but I understand that that is an outstanding concern for all parties.

I come now to recommendation 10 of the Macpherson report concerning disclosure of investigating officers' reports, to which my hon. Friend referred. The Home Secretary made it clear in his response to the Macpherson report that the Home Office will consider, in consultation with interested parties, how to overcome the current situation whereby investigating officers' reports attract public interest immunity as a class.

We have set up a Home Office working group to examine how recommendation 10 can best be put into practice without compromising the integrity of the complaints process. We intend to announce our conclusions by the end of the year, so that we can further develop the policy. There are different views on that matter, but it is important for us to assess the recommendation and to make our position publicly clear, which we shall do by the end of the year.

I shall not now go into all the implications of the Macpherson report. My hon. Friend correctly assessed the report's purpose, which is to establish confidence. That requires important changes in a wide variety of procedures and approaches.

Those are the basic facts and they confirm the essential points of my hon. Friend's description of the situation. I turn now to his substantive points. First, he referred to a culture of secrecy that affects the way in which these matters can be discussed. He has raised valid issues. The Macpherson report and other inquiries have concluded that everyone will gain if we have a proper process whereby people fully understand the state of affairs. As I said in an Adjournment debate earlier today on a different case, I believe that the criminal justice system is opaque in too many ways, and that individuals cannot properly understand what is happening to them and how it happens. I am sure that constituents have expressed that feeling to all hon. Members at different times and in different ways.

At the start of his speech, my hon. Friend raised an especially important point of substance—the issue of communication with the family about the process that takes place as it moves forward. We are actively considering a range of proposals to ensure a far better quality of communication with the family.

The Crown Prosecution Service is currently running a range of pilot schemes. We hope that, as a result, by the end of the year 2001 there will established throughout the country a process by which, in all serious cases—as the case of Ricky Reel obviously is—there is proper communication between the prosecutors and the victim about decisions that are taken. One of the greatest sadnesses that people have is the failure to understand why decisions to prosecute are or are not taken in certain circumstances.

I know that my hon. Friend appreciates—because he has paid close attention to the matter—the difficulties in achieving a balance on that aspect, but the Government and the Crown Prosecution Service have a strong commitment to establish a form of communication that would give victims the information that they need to understand how the process operates.

Now is not the time to enter into greater detail on a range of areas where we hope to support victims and witnesses. As my hon. Friend said, there are major issues in ensuring that witnesses feel able to stand up or are able to stand up and develop the situation directly, and it is also important, in that connection, that the victim's views about the process can be part of the legal process. We are actively considering ways in which they may be.

My hon. Friend and my hon. Friends the Members for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley) and for Hornchurch (Mr. Cryer) made important, serious points about the way in which the police have conducted the inquiry. I cannot, in my position, comment on the precise nature of the police inquiry or on the detailed points that my hon. Friends have made about that inquiry.

I believe that the fundamental point was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington when he said that he felt that the police investigation lacked focus and thoroughness. I apologise for poaching the words that he used. He also said that there was a need to reform police practices to ensure that those issues were addressed in the most effective and powerful way possible. My hon. Friend made his point clearly and strongly. I know that people will study his words extremely carefully to establish how the processes may be improved.

A great many of the issues will be resolved openly and clearly at the inquest, which starts on 1 November. On the more general issues that my hon. Friend has raised, I say only that it is necessary and important to deal, in the way that he has said, with the issue of public interest immunity as a class in this case. That is a profound and important issue.

I conclude by giving my hon. Friend the assurance that I believe that he is seeking—that the Government position on that matter will be absolutely clear before the end of 1999.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.