HL Deb 19 December 1963 vol 254 cc416-8

My Lords, the Home Secretary is making a statement in another place concerning the case of Mr. Herman Woolf, and I should like to repeat it to your Lordships, using my right honourable friend's own words. The statement is as follows:

"On the instructions of the Commissioner of Police a thorough investigation was carried out by Detective-Superintendent Axon, whose report I have studied with great care, together with some further information which I requested.

"There have been two grounds of concern about this case. The first was that, although Mrs. Woolf had reported to the poice that her husband was missing, she received no information about him until after his death. This occurred through a failure of coordination within the Metropolitan Police organisation for which the Commissioner has already expressed his deep regret. The procedure for dealing with inquiries about missing persons has been reviewed, to safeguard against any similar failure in future.

"The second ground of concern was whether Mr. Woolf, after being knocked down by a car, might have received any further injuries during the time when he was at West End Central Police Station. For my part I would have welcomed the holding of a fresh inquest at which any such allegations could have been tested; and my right honourable and learned friend the Attorney General gave his authority for an application for a fresh inquest to be made to the High Court. On November 13 the Court, to whom all the information in the hands of the police was made available, refused the application. In delivering judgment the Lord Chief Justice said that the evidence before the Court fell far short of enabling the Court to say that there was any real risk that justice was not done at the inquest.

"From my own study of Detective-Superintendent Axon's report and of the statements which he took from every available witness, I am in much doubt whether further inquiry will throw any fresh light on what happened. But in the circumstances of this case, with its tragic end, I am anxious that no possible point of doubt should remain unresolved, if further inquiry can resolve it. I have therefore decided to set up an inquiry into the actions of the Metropolitan Police in relation to the case of Mr. Herman Woolf, from the time of the road accident in which he was involved on November 10, 1962, until the time of his death in the Atkinson Morley Hospital on November 23, 1962. Mr. Norman Skelhorn, Q.C., the Recorder of Portsmouth, has agreed to hold the inquiry, and the Secretary will be Mr. W. Middlemass. Any communication about it should be addressed to him at the Home Office. I shall publish Mr. Skelhorn's Report."


My Lords, we are grateful for this statement. On the first point, it is odd that Mrs. Woolf, who notified the police that her husband was missing, should not have been told that he had met with an accident, and had died, or been informed at the time of the inquest. It seems almost inconceivable that administration should have broken down in such a way as that. The statement gives no explanation of the breakdown, and one would like to know a little more about it, if the noble Lord is able to give it. On the second point, again it is very strange that, after the Lord Chief Justice had decided that there was no ground for reopening the inquest, the Government should now decide that there is one because there is an element of doubt. I make no complaint about that, and I think we must await the result of the further inquiry.


My Lords, may I add that of course there was a very serious failure of co-ordination inside the Metropolitan Police? That we know. I do not think I will say any more about it, because that may well be one of the matters which the inquiry will look into as well, and that report will be fully published.


My Lords, can the noble Lord give an assurance that that will he looked into?—because it is not included in the statement as one of the terms of reference. If it will be, I am quite satisfied.


My Lords, with respect to the noble Lord, may I repeat a sentence in the statement, when my right honourable friend said: I have therefore decided to set up an inquiry into the actions of the Metropolitan Police…from the time of the road accident in which he was involved "— that is, from the beginning. I think I am right in saying that that covers it.