HL Deb 15 June 1984 vol 452 cc1379-82

11.28 a.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Elton)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to a Private Notice Question being asked in another place about yesterday's shootings in a north London sub-post office. This is the text of the Statement: The House will understand that, although I have had a preliminary report from the police on this incident, the case is still at the early stages of investigation. It would of course be quite improper for me to say anything which could prejudice any subsequent proceedigs. The facts are that, as a result of information they had received, the police had reason to expect a robbery or other criminal attack at a sub-post office in the Seven Sisters Road, Tottenham. Their information was based on observation of the premises for a period of some days. On Thursday morning, 14th June, two armed police officers accompanied the member of staff opening the premises at the beginning of the day in order to take up their duties there. On entering the building they discovered that it had been broken into. Two men were inside. There was a struggle. It would be wrong for me to comment in detail at this stage on what followed, but in the struggle two men whom the police were attempting to arrest were shot. Both of them were seriously injured. I understand that a total of three shots were fired: both officers used their firearms. The Commissioner has confirmed to me that the firearms were issued after the proper procedures for considering whether to do so had been fully complied with. The House is well aware of the heavy responsibility which we place upon police officers when they are required to be armed in the course of their duty. This does mean that when firearms are used by the police, the matter must be regarded as a very serious one and be fully inquired into. In this case the Commissioner has decided to appoint a senior police officer wholly independent of the robbery squad from which the two officers came to inquire into the circumstances in which firearms were issued and used on this occasion. His report will go to the Director of Public Prosecutions, as will a separate report into the question of whether offences were committed by those arrested. An interim report of the case will go to him at the earliest practicable opportunity. My Lords, that completes the reply which was given by my right honourable and learned friend the Home Secretary.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I cannot repeat often enough that my noble friends and I are, and always will be, strong adherents of law and order; but, equally, my noble friends and I regard ourselves as having the duty to be very vigilant about an excess of police powers and very vigilant about the rights of citizens. Does not the Minister agree that in that context we all of us have grounds for the gravest concern in regard to the incidents of which he has just given details to the House?

Does the noble Lord the Minister recall that there was equal concern after the case of Stephen Waldorf, which led to a revision of the circumstances in which police could carry firearms and use them, as well as the limitations in regard to their use? Those regulations, as we understood them—and the Minister will no doubt correct me if we are wrong—meant that there must be first of all the permission given of an officer not below the rank of commander. Was that permission given in this instance?

Secondly, when the police do carry firearms, is it correct that the regulation is that, if possible, a warning should be issued before their use and that the firearms should only be used if the lives of the police themselves, their colleagues or members of the public are in danger? On the preliminary report that his right honourable friend has received, do those circumstances emerge at all?

Finally, may I ask when the House may expect to receive, in the circumstances of this case, a statement as to what has occurred, as well as a statement as to whether any revision is required of the regulations, or whether what has occurred here is that the regulations, as I have tried to summarise them, have not been complied with?

Lord Hooson

My Lords, would the noble Lord the Minister not agree that there is legitimate concern in all parts of this House that the issue of firearms should be, as it were, an extraordinary event and not a routine event, and that their use should be regarded as quite exceptional? Appreciating everything the noble Lord said about the possible charges that may arise in respect of those people who were within the premises or those who used the firearms, would he not agree that a statement should be made as soon as possible indicating the grounds on which the firearms were used and the grounds for apprehension which will be said to have justified them? It is. I am sure, a matter of great concern in all parts of this House that we do not drift imperceptibly into an American kind of situation, where the use of arms is routine rather than the exception.

Lord Elton

My Lords, the noble Lords, Lord Mishcon and Lord Hooson, have voiced anxieties which Her Majesty's Government and everybody in this House share. It is our duty to be vigilant about the use of police powers and the rights of citizens. That is why we have the guidelines which the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, summarised so aptly, and that is why there is now to be an inquiry to see whether these guidelines have been met and whether criminal acts have been committed. The report will cover that aspect of things. I understand that in fact, as the Statement said, the procedures as to the issue of police firearms have been properly followed in this case; but of course the question as to their use must be a matter which is sub judice and which will be subject to the report.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, while we all share the anxiety which has been so well expressed from both Front Benches opposite, there is another aspect to this matter? Even this week there was an armed robbery where a young woman was shot by a young man. Therefore the police have to be prepared when they are dealing with an alleged robbery which seems almost certain and which they know is about to take place, and they must take a very careful view as to whether or not they need to be armed. While of course we need to have a full report on why they used their arms when dealing with men who were not armed, we nevertheless must understand the necessity for the police to go armed into a situation where a robbery is taking place. Unfortunately, the fact is that so often nowadays the robbers are armed, and unless the police are armed too, they will not only not be able to apprehend the robbers but may very well lose their lives as well.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for giving me the opportunity to say that while one must come to no conclusions about this event before the inquiry is concluded, it is very much in our minds that the police need to be in a position to respond appropriately to armed threat. I understand from the Post Office that in the single week ended 2nd June there were no fewer than 12 attacks on Post Office staff or premises, and in eight of the attacks the assailants were armed.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, would the noble Lord agree that though there may be at the moment a certain number of criticisms of police behaviour towards petty criminals, in general we have the greatest respect for their courage and for the difficult work they have in protecting us from the real villains, in respect of which the particular squads take very serious risks very frequently?

Lord Elton

My Lords, the work of the police is both dangerous and difficult, and we all stand indebted to the members of the police forces of this country. Nothing I have said bears on the issue in this case, which must of course be the subject of an inquiry.

Lord Leatherland

My Lords, would the Minister agree that it is not always wise to wait for the other man to shoot first?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I do not wish to adduce general principles, much as I sympathise with them, in the context of the Statement about a particular event.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, following the opening remarks of my noble friend Lord Mishcon, with which I completely agree, is it not a sad fact that the incidence of police shooting, which is clear in this case, follows a very dreadful murder which took place earlier this week not many miles away from this incident, in Hertford Road, Enfield, which I know very, very well? Will the Minister take a special note of the juxtaposition of both events? This was a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Nugent. Would he not agree that there is a real urgency for the Government to think again of any way in which they can seek to diminish the use of firearms by both the criminals or the police?

Lord Elton

My Lords, we do not underestimate the threat of violence in our society. I believe that the steps taken by my noble friend and my right honourable friend who succeeded him have done a great deal to alleviate a situation which would otherwise be far worse than it is now had it not been for the action which has been taken.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, the whole of the discussion on this rather worrying matter must be against the background of the warning given by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman, in this House, only last week, that the boundary line between the use of police powers in a democratic state and a police state itself is a boundary line which is very thin.

Lord Elton

My Lords, it is a boundary line which is ably and vigilantly patrolled by your Lordships and you will continue to do so during the proceedings on the Police and Criminal Evidence Bill. I do not think that we can usefully prolong this discussion, which is about one event which is sub judice.