HL Deb 07 March 1977 vol 380 cc898-903

5.20 p.m.

Lord HARRIS of GREENWICH rose to move, That the draft Police (Withdrawn Anonymous Etc. Complaints) Regulations 1977, laid before the House on 17th February, be approved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the draft regulations which we are considering today are intended to provide for a part of the new complaints procedure which we are introducing under the terms of the Police Act 1976. They seek to do two things. First, they dispense with the requirements of Section 49 of the Police Act 1964 and of Section 2(1) of the Police Act 1976, where a person who has made a complaint states in writing that he withdraws it or that he does not want any further action taken in regard to it. Second, they allow the Police Complaints Board, on the request of the chief officer concerned, to dispense with those same requirements where the complaint is anonymous, repetitious or incapable of investigation.

The requirements which we are talking about here—the requirements of Section 49 of the Police Act 1964 and of the Police Act 1976—are the requirement on a chief officer to record and have investigated any complaint by a member of the public against a member of his force, to refer it in certain circumstances to the Director of Public Prosecutions for consideration of any criminal aspects of the case, and to refer it to the Police Complaints Board for consideration of the disciplinary aspects. I should like to deal first with the case where a complaint is withdrawn—that is covered in draft Regulation 3—and then move on to other types of complaint that are covered in draft Regulation 4, because the two kinds are dealt with in significantly different ways.

I think it will be generally agreed—and Parliament accepted this during debates on the Police Bill last year—that it is not necessary for the police to conduct a full investigation and refer the results to the Director of Public Prosecutions or the Board where a complainant agrees to withdraw the complaint or decides that he does not after all wish there to be any further action. This may be because he decides that his complaint was not really justified, or that he has made his point by simply drawing attention to the matter. Provision for this was made in Sections 2(2)(b) and 6(1)(f) of the Act, and draft Regulation 3 gives effect to the agreed policy, providing however the necessary safeguard for the public by ensuring that the withdrawal must be in writing. I would stress that none of this means that where the chief officer—in practice the deputy chief constable—considers that an allegation made in a complaint justifies investigation, even though the complaint itself has been withdrawn, he is precluded from so doing. He can still arrange for the matter to be investigated, but he will do so as an internal matter, and there will be no reference to the Complaints Board.

I turn now to draft Regulation 4 which allows the Board to dispense with the requirements of Section 49 and of the 1976 Act in certain other circumstances. At the moment, because there is no in dependent element in the complaints procedure, the police feel bound to investigate every complaint in what is sometimes an unnecessary amount of detail. During the discussions last year there was, I think, a general feeling that both the police and the Complaints Board should be able to concentrate on the more serious and important complaints, and that there should be some procedure which would allow complaints, which for various reasons did not justify a full investigation, to be disposed of more speedily. However, it is not easy to translate that general agreement into a statutory provision. It was suggested that we ought to think in terms of a distinction between "trivial" and "serious" complaints. But not all apparently trivial complaints prove on investigation to be trivial, while some apparently serious complaints prove to have little substance. The Government felt nevertheless that there was scope for a shortened procedure, and sought the necessary regulation-making power in what is now Section 6(1)(g) of the 1976 Act.

In the discussions on the Bill, anonymous and repetitious complaints were suggested as kinds of complaint to which a shortened procedure should apply, and we have covered both of these in the regulations. The terms are defined in the Schedule to the regulations. A complaint is defined in paragraph 2 as anonymous if it does not give the complainant's name and address or, if he is complaining about behaviour towards someone else, that person's name and address, and if it is not reasonably practicable to find out the name and address. Paragraph 3 defines a repetitious complaint as one that is substantially the same as a previous complaint which has already been dealt with under the new complaints procedure, and that does not make any significant fresh allegations. We have now added a further category—the com plaint where it is not reasonably practicable to complete the investigation. Examples might be where, although the letter containing the complaint bore a name and address, the address proved, upon inquiries being made, not to exist, or no one of the name in question was known there, or the person concerned had moved and could not be traced. Or it might be possible to contact the complainant, but he refused to make a statement or to give any assistance to the officer who was investigating the complaint. We have also sought to deal with the situation where someone complains about something that has happened to a third party, and the third party either states, in writing, that he does not want to support the complaint or refuses to give any assistance in the investigation. These are all situations which have in the past caused the police a great deal of trouble, because they have been obliged to pursue the complaints further than was justified in order to prove that they have not neglected the matter.

What we propose now is that where the deputy chief constable is satisfied that a complaint falls into one of the categories I have indicated, which are specified in Regulation 4, he should be entitled, if he thinks it appropriate, to ask the Com plaints Board to agree that no further action should be taken. He may be able to do this immediately if the com plaint is anonymous. In the case of an apparently repetitious complaint, someone will have to look at the files and compare it with the previous complaint. In other cases, consideration of a request to the Board will not arise until, for example, it has proved not to be reasonably practicable to trace or get in touch with the complain ant, or other preliminary inquiries have proved abortive. The deputy chief con stable would be required to give his reasons for assigning the complaint to the category in question and, where appropriate, to provide relevant evidence—for example, a copy of the previous complaint, an account of efforts made to trace the person concerned, and so on.

When they received such a complaint the Board would consider whether they agreed with the deputy chief constable's assessment. If they did, they would tell him so and no further action would be necessary on the part of the police, except to record in the complaints register that the matter was closed. It would be for the Complaints Board to inform the complainant of the outcome where he could be contacted. The Board would not be allowed to reject the request without first consulting the deputy chief constable. If, in the end, they did reject it, the com plaint would then have to be pursued in the normal way, and the reports of the investigation would normally be referred to the Board in due course under Section 2(1) of the Police Act 1976.

These regulations are an integral part of the new procedures introduced by the 1976 Act and we intend that they should come into operation on the same day as the main provisions of the Act. Noble Lords will have noted that the operative date is not specified in these draft regulations and that no commencement order to give effect to the relevant provisions of the 1976 Act has yet been made. If the regulations are approved both in this House and in another place, we hope to settle the date finally, in consultation with the Police Advisory Board and the Police Complaints Board, and we hope to make the necessary commencement order very shortly thereafter. Noble Lords should know, however, that we have in mind 1st June as the starting date. The new procedures will apply to complaints relating to conduct which occurred on or after that date; there will be no element of retrospection.

I should take this opportunity of mentioning that a number of other regulations have to be made to bring the new procedures into operation. These regulations will be made once the draft of the present regulations has been approved. They will, among other things, give effect to the assurances given while the Bill was going through Parliament concerning the supply of a copy of a complaint to an officer about whom it was made, and the right of the Police Federation to use its funds to support defamation proceedings.

As I have said, the purpose of the present draft regulations is, first, to remove the withdrawn complaint from the ambit of the complaints procedure and, secondly, to allow the police and the Complaints Board to concentrate time and effort on the potentially serious complaints by enabling them to dispose more speedily of complaints which for certain specified reasons do not justify the full treatment. It seems to us that this is something which will be of benefit not only to the police but also to the public at large. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft Police (With drawn Anonymous Etc. Complaints) Regulations 1977, laid before the House on 17th February, be approved—(Lord Harris of Greenwich.)

5.32 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure the House would wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for his thorough explanation of these regulations, about which I do not suppose anybody would wish to complain. I have only one question, which is this. Your Lordships will remember that as the Police Act 1976 went through your Lordships' House and the other place there was a great deal of, I will not say dismay, but disquiet by or on behalf of the police as to the effect it would have on the manner in which they carry out their duties. In the second line of this Paper the Secretary of State in effect says that he has consulted the Police Advisory Board before drafting these regulations. I should like the noble Lord, Lord Harris, to confirm, if he would, that that process has been gone through. If it has, perhaps he would be kind enough to tell us the reaction of the Police Advisory Board to these regulations.


My Lords, I am much obliged to the noble Earl. As he pointed out, the regulations have indeed been put to the Police Advisory Board. I was present at the meeting, and they were accepted with no indication of any dissent on the part of anybody present.

On Question, Motion agreed to.