HC Deb 08 July 2002 vol 388 cc717-24

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

10.26 pm
Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)

I welcome the opportunity for this debate, which is inspired by the very tragic and totally unnecessary death of Glenn Howard. I have been involved with his case for four years, and my sole purpose today is to call for a public inquiry into the circumstances of his death. As will become apparent, investigations to date, which have lasted for nearly four years, have proved unsatisfactory. Many questions have been left unanswered, leaving Mr. Howard's family to endure unnecessary suffering.

A public inquiry would achieve two valuable aims. First, it would allow Mr. Howard's family to ascertain exactly what happened and to piece together those last few important moments of his life, thereby ending their long-standing torment. Secondly, equally importantly, a public inquiry is required because of the wider issues raised by Mr. Howard's case. It is imperative that an evaluation of police procedures and protocols dealing with the treatment of vulnerable individuals such as those with mental illness takes place. In particular, police procedures dealing with the training of officers, restraint techniques that are employed and the treatment of vulnerable individuals while they are in police custody need to be reassessed. It is hoped that a public inquiry will lead to the proposal of positive solutions, affording increased public confidence in the police and the development of a system whereby tragedies such as that of Glenn Howard can be prevented.

Glenn Howard was a 47-year-old musician who had a long history of mental health problems. He enjoyed not only his music, but tending to his tropical fish, which he kept in a fish tank at his flat. He was described by those who knew him as a very likeable individual—possibly eccentric, but with no previous history of aggressive or violent behaviour. From time to time, Glenn Howard was detained in Sutton hospital under section 3 of the Mental Health Act 1983, which allows for mentally impaired individuals to be detained for short periods to alleviate or prevent the deterioration of their condition. In hospital he received the invaluable support and medication that was needed. While he was being detained at the hospital, it was not uncommon for him to abscond to return to his flat and feed his fish. After doing so, he would often return to the hospital of his own volition.

On 8 December 1997, Glenn Howard was detained at Sutton hospital for the 13th time. Two days later, on 10 December, hospital staff noticed that Glenn had absconded. A nurse contacted Sutton police station to report him missing and asked the police to return him to the hospital. Two officers, empowered under the Mental Health Act, responded to the call. They visited Sutton hospital, where it is claimed that nurses informed them that Glenn was not a violent individual, and that if they encountered any difficulties, hospital staff should be called to assist. At two minutes past eight that evening, the two officers attended Glenn Howard's home address. There they were let into the block of flats by a caretaker, where they met Glenn. Witnesses described him at the time as wholly co-operative with the officers. The officers then proceeded to leave the block of flats.

It is at that point that the story becomes unclear. The two officers claim that on leaving the premises, Mr. Howard tried to escape. It is claimed that a violent struggle took place. Nine other officers had been called to attend. During the struggle, Glenn Howard was restrained in a bear hug for up to four minutes, which had the effect of constricting his breathing. He was hit with a police baton and placed face on the floor, and his legs were crossed behind him. Officers then restrained him in handcuffs, first to his front and then behind his back.

At no time during the struggle were the officers who were called to assist informed of Glenn Howard's mental impairment. At some point officers noted that Glenn had vomited, but no action was taken in response. Instead, he was carried face down by five police officers and forcibly placed in the back of a police van.

Contrary to initial instructions, Mr. Howard was not returned to hospital. Instead, he was conveyed to Sutton police station. On arrival, Glenn's mouth was seen to be open and his head lolling backwards. He was rushed to the accident and emergency department of St. Helier hospital, where nurses attended to him. He was unconscious and hospital staff noted that he had turned blue and was not breathing. Attempts to resuscitate Mr. Howard were made. Sadly, all was futile; he never regained consciousness. His existence was reduced to a permanent vegetative state, and he was kept alive until 1 January 1999 only by the assistance of a ventilator. Later, doctors stated that Mr. Howard had not been breathing for up to 10 minutes before his arrival. His brain had been starved of oxygen for four minutes and it was said that the restraint techniques employed by the police were likely to have been a significant factor in his death.

The circumstances surrounding Mr. Howard's death posed several questions. Why were such restraint techniques employed? Why had the police not called for hospital assistance? Why were the other officers who were called to attend not informed of his condition? Why was Mr. Howard not taken straight to hospital? Perhaps the most important question is this: legal jurisprudence dictates that a mental patient detained in circumstances such as Glenn Howard's commit no criminal offence in absconding. Why was he then treated like an ordinary criminal rather than with the sensitivity that is and ought to be required when dealing with vulnerable individuals who are mentally unwell?

I find it astonishing that those questions have remained unanswered to date. The great difficulty experienced by Glenn Howard's family in acquiring elementary information about the circumstances of his death has made matters worse.

I am calling for a public inquiry because the inquest into his death revealed several outstanding issues. There is legitimate worry over the fact that the testimony supplied by officers contradicts vital evidence supplied by independent witnesses. One example is that police officers continue to deny being informed by hospital staff that Mr. Howard was not of a violent disposition, and that the hospital should be called to assist in the event of any difficulties. Officers have also failed to supply consistent and accurate details on the timing of events as they unfolded. I know that that is of great concern to Glenn Howard's family. The discrepancies are not acceptable and have resulted in unnecessary agony.

In fact, such was the nature of the discrepancies that the jury at the coroner's inquest ignored the coroner's direction not to comment on the circumstances of Mr. Howard's death. Confined to a finding of accidental death, the jury unanimously commented that excessive restraint followed by an immediate and subsequent neglect of medical care and attention was the cause of Glenn Howard's death.

In further recognition of the inadequate handling of the case, disciplinary proceedings behind closed doors commenced under the supervision of the Police Complaints Authority, which found that one officer had failed in his duty to monitor Mr. Howard.

My call for a public inquiry goes beyond seeking to account for those unanswered questions. An inquiry will inevitably go beyond the scope of Glenn Howard's death, as it is in the public interest to ensure that adequate training and techniques are employed by police officers when dealing with vulnerable individuals. For far too long, that has been a neglected area of public policy, which has led to the undermining of public confidence in the police and accounts for some of the 614 deaths of vulnerable individuals in police custody since 1990.

Never has there been more need to evaluate the protocols in place and their adequacy to deal with mental patients who abscond. I am supported in my cause by the organisation Rethink, formerly the National Schizophrenia Fellowship. The current review of mental health legislation allows an opportunity to adopt a fresh approach to vulnerable individuals. It is hoped that positive solutions can be found to increase police awareness and training for dealing with the mentally ill. Restraining techniques should be examined constructively and modified.

It is hoped that the scrutiny demanded of a public inquiry will lead to the creation or review of nationally agreed protocols backed by the Home Office, which would govern any interaction between the police and mentally ill patients. It is envisaged that nationally agreed protocols on dealing with people suffering from mental illness and other vulnerable individuals who abscond from hospital will require health and social care staff to take lead responsibility for the return of mental patients. Glenn Howard's death demonstrates that there are genuine concerns about the extent to which mental health services have become reliant on the police to implement mental health legislation.

New mental health legislation must ensure that, where possible, the mentally ill and vulnerable individuals are dealt with by people with specific expertise or, alternatively, family members. Police involvement and restraint techniques should be minimised. When police involvement cannot be avoided, measures must be in place to ensure that officers adhere to nationally agreed training standards when dealing with vulnerable individuals. Those standards should include regular refresher courses.

In the aftermath of Glenn Howard's tragic death, the Metropolitan police have implemented new procedures to deal with individuals with mental illness, which I welcome. Such measures, however, must be implemented nationally, not just within the Metropolitan police area. For Glenn Howard's family and other people affected by similar cases, a public inquiry can bring closure, identify failings and establish solutions.

It is worth contrasting Glenn Howard's case with that of another constituent who, after failings by the local authority and a local NHS trust, was placed, with no financial assistance, in a bed and breakfast. He left without anyone noticing and, tragically, was found dead from hypothermia on a local common. After a long battle, and with much sadness and regret, his family have been able to close that chapter in their lives because the local authority and the trust accepted that mistakes had been made, apologised in writing—admittedly, the apology was extracted after much delay—and agreed an action plan with the family of the deceased. They have been able to monitor the progress of the plan; they can see that lessons have been learned from that tragic event and that measures have been implemented greatly to reduce the risk of such a sad event reoccurring.

That has not happened in Glenn Howard's case. Glenn Howard must not be just another statistic—lessons must be learned from his untimely death and his family must have their confidence restored. I trust that in learning of the manner in which he was treated, the Minister will back my call for a public inquiry into his death.

10.39 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Hilary Benn)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) for raising this case in an Adjournment debate; for the manner in which he presented his concerns; and for his diligence on behalf of Glenn Howard's family, to whom I offer my sincere personal condolences on their great loss. Every death in police custody is a death too many and an individual tragedy. It is right that every possible step should be taken to ensure that people are properly cared for in police custody.

For the benefit of Members present in the Chamber, the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington set out the circumstances surrounding the tragic death of Glenn Howard. Following those events, the Metropolitan police referred the matter to the Police Complaints Authority for supervision of the investigation into Mr. Howard's death, and Detective Superintendent Curtis was appointed as the senior investigating officer. Following consultation between the coroner and the Police Complaints Authority, the file was passed to the Crown Prosecution Service for its consideration. The CPS decided that there should be no further action for criminal proceedings.

At the subsequent inquest, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the jury returned a verdict of accidental death. However, the inquest jury added that Glenn Howard was subjected to excessive restraint followed by an immediate and subsequent neglect of medical care and attention which resulted in a brain injury, as a result of which he later died". In line with its policy, the Crown Prosecution Service then reviewed the decision that it had taken previously, but remained of the view that none of the police officers should face criminal proceedings.

Following receipt of the investigation report, the Police Complaints Authority—which eventually expressed itself satisfied with the quality of the investigation—directed that four officers face disciplinary charges for neglect of duty in relation to their failure to provide the necessary care to Glenn Howard and, in the case of one officer, to monitor his condition and render care to him in the van on his way to the police station and the hospital. The PCA initially recommended to the Metropolitan police that one officer face a disciplinary charge of using excessive force. Owing to resistance from the Metropolitan police and advice from counsel, the Police Complaints Authority decided against such a charge.

However, at a disciplinary hearing held in April 2002, two parts of one charge were proved against one officer in that he failed to monitor Glenn Howard's condition after he became his responsibility, and failed to make any oral or visual inquiry of Glenn Howard's state of health. The officer was cautioned. All other charges were dismissed.

The Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan police, Ian Blair, wrote to Barry Howard, Glenn Howard's brother, on 10 May this year to acknowledge that the level of care that Mr. Howard received from an officer monitoring his condition was "found to be wanting." Mr. Blair also extended the sympathies and sincere regrets of the Metropolitan police to Mr. Howard's family.

I am aware that, as the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington mentioned, Barry Howard, Glenn's brother, has raised the issue of time discrepancies between the police officers' accounts and other police documentation, particularly the computer aided dispatch—CAD—command and control system. I am also aware that Barry Howard has asserted that his brother was the victim of an unprovoked attack by the police officers.

I understand that a meeting was held in May between Barry Howard and lan Bynoe, of the Police Complaints Authority, supported by police officers from the Metropolitan police service's directorate of professional standards to explain how the timings were obtained. Barry Howard was informed that timings on the CAD message related to when information was entered on the system, not necessarily to when events happened. Although there were differences between the CAD and the police officers' accounts, no evidence was forthcoming to corroborate a suggestion that events were other than described by the officers.

It is also the case that neither the investigation nor the subsequent inquest proceedings produced any evidence which supports the assertion that Glenn Howard was the victim of an unprovoked assault by police officers.

I very much regret that the completion of the case has taken so long. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, a number of factors have contributed to the delay. They include the following: the retirement of the original investigating officer on ill health grounds, which meant that he had to be replaced; Glenn Howard's death more than a year after his arrest meant that the original investigation had to be supplemented by further investigation; an inquest had to be completed; following the inquest, the CPS rightly had to consider the file and the inquest evidence; following the CPS decision not to prosecute, the Metropolitan police had to consider whether disciplinary action was necessary; the Police Complaints Authority disagreed with the proposals of the Metropolitan police and had to direct disciplinary action, as I have described; and the Police Complaints Authority member who initially handled the case and made recommendations to the Metropolitan police left in March 2001, which meant that another member had to familiarise themselves with a lengthy and complex matter in order to take it forward. As I said, I regret that very much, but as a result it was not possible for the PCA to send its concluding letter to Barry Howard until the disciplinary hearing was completed in April.

I note that the hon. Gentleman called for a public inquiry into the death of Glenn Howard, but I have to say that, having regard to all the circumstances, I am not persuaded that that would take us any further forward, given the investigation conducted by the Metropolitan police under the supervision of the Police Complaints Authority, although I want to return to a related point in a moment. That is not to say, however, that there are no lessons to be learned from what happened to Glenn Howard; there are, and I now wish to turn to them.

The most important thing that I can tell the hon. Gentleman and Mr. Howard's family is that we are proposing to change procedures for handling and investigating complaints against the police by introducing the Police Reform Bill. The Bill will replace the Police Complaints Authority with a new body, the independent police complaints commission. Any death involving the police or other serious incidents of possible police misconduct will be referred to the IPCC for it to make a decision on how the case should be investigated. While the IPCC will use its judgment in making that decision, a case of this nature would almost certainly lead to an investigation undertaken by its staff, independently of the police.

Tom Brake

I thank the Minister for giving way. He may be about to deal with this point, but can he give any guarantees or outline as to how long such a process would take? One of the key concerns in this case is the duration of the investigation and the possibility that a body of evidence might have been lost in the four years or more since it began.

Hilary Bean

I entirely understand the hon. Gentleman's point about the time that has been taken, which is why I have expressed my regret.

In comparison with the current system for investigations under the Police Act 1996, the Police Reform Bill will ensure greater involvement of the complainant or next of kin in the investigation; greater openness in disclosing materials to the complainant or next of kin; more effective powers to direct that disciplinary charges be laid against police officers; the ability to attend the disciplinary hearing and, if the IPCC representative chooses, the option either to present the case against the officer himself or herself or instruct counsel to do so; and, in relation to IPCC investigations, greater independence of the person carrying out the investigation.

Better communication with the family will be achieved by placing a statutory duty on the IPCC and the police to keep the complainant informed throughout the investigation and also by allowing the investigation report to be disclosed to the complainant, subject to a sensitivity test. In this case, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, and as the law currently stands, the disclosure of the report is entirely at the discretion of the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, but in view of the nature of the concerns that he expressed, I will convey them to the commissioner in drawing his attention to this debate.

While we await those new arrangements, other changes are also occurring. First, within the Metropolitan police, the internal investigations command now has responsibility for the investigation of deaths following contact with the police. The specialist investigations unit now has four teams on call 24 hours a day to respond to and investigate critical incidents. A detective chief inspector who acts as the senior investigating officer leads each team. All the senior investigating officers have attended a development course that includes training in family liaison, exhibit handling and other investigative and detective skills.

Secondly, as I think the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, last year, the Metropolitan police service launched two initiatives aimed at further reducing the number of deaths. It recruited a nursing manager and six nurses to work in the custody suite at Charing Cross police station to advise custody officers, as well as those undertaking risk assessments, of points that they should bear in mind in relation to detainees. It also produced a training video highlighting some of the medical emergencies that can arise in arrests, such as when prisoners swallow drugs or struggle when restrained.

Thirdly, police forces across the country are taking a wide range of actions to seek to reduce deaths in custody. Those include safer custody facilities, improved training, closed circuit television monitoring and an emphasis on better care, assessment and supervision of detainees.

Fourthly, because since April 1996 there has been a small number of deaths in police custody where restraint may have been a factor, there has been a continuing review of appropriate restraint techniques. Police officers are trained in a number of restraint methods but must use those only within the law: when they have a power to do so and when it is reasonable and necessary to do so. In addition to the skills training they receive, officers are taught about the relevant law and told that they may be called upon to justify their actions.

Finally, in relation to the last point that the hon. Gentleman raised, steps are being taken to seek to improve police practice in relation to mentally ill individuals. The Home Office, the Department of Health and the Association of Chief Police Officers are considering the development of national protocols covering the relationship between the police and health services in dealing with the mentally ill, a point that the hon. Gentleman rightly raised.

The current review of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 codes of practice is seeking to strengthen further the protection for mentally ill detainees, particularly in terms of assessing their vulnerability and fitness for interview. In addition, the review of the Mental Health Act which is under way recognises that police cells are not generally appropriate places for assessing whether a person needs medical treatment.

In conclusion—

Tom Brake

As the Minister is about to conclude, I ask a further couple of questions. First, he said that consideration is being given to the development of national protocols. I wonder whether he can give me any idea of the time scale over which that consideration is to take place. Secondly, I was not certain what the Minister said—is he going to ask the commissioner to make the report available to me?

Hilary Benn

On the second of those points, under the law as it currently stands, it is entirely at the discretion of the commissioner as to whether to make the report available, but I have undertaken to draw to the attention of the commissioner the points that the hon. Gentleman has understandably made in relation to this case.

Tom Brake

May I rephrase it then? Will the Minister be suggesting to the commissioner that it would be appropriate perhaps for him to release the report in this case?

Hilary Benn

In drawing the attention of the commissioner to this debate, I will convey to him the concerns that the hon. Gentleman has expressed. No doubt the commissioner will also notice, as I am sure he already has, the change in the law that we are in the process of making in the House to change completely the arrangements for the disclosure of information, so that the presumption will be that the information will be disclosed, subject to the sensitivity tests that have been drawn up and are contained in the Bill. I am sure that the commissioner will carefully consider all the points that have been made in the debate.

On the second point that the hon. Gentleman raises about the time scale for the development of national protocols, I cannot answer that question this evening but I undertake to write to him about that to give him further information.

I am very sorry about what happened to Glenn Howard, and I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman extended my sympathies to the family as they try to come to terms with their terrible loss.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Eleven o'clock