HL Deb 01 February 1999 vol 596 cc1283-6

2.50 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have any plans to amend the law to enable police disciplinary proceedings to be initiated or continued following the retirement of a police officer.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, the Government have no plans at present. We will consider this issue in the light of Sir William Macpherson's report on his inquiry into matters arising from the death of Stephen Lawrence.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I am obliged to my noble friend the Minister for that reply. However, apart from the police and probation officers, can my noble friend say whether there are any other professions or occupations where members can escape disciplinary proceedings simply by retiring? Indeed, what justification can there be for such a situation? Further, will my noble friend take this opportunity to deprecate attempts which have been made by police sources to denigrate the Macpherson inquiry in advance of the publication of its findings?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I do not know of any other profession where a similar immunity, as it were, would arise following retirement. Certainly, if one has left regular practice at the Bar, one still remains liable to complaints from disenchanted members of the public. If there has been any concerted effort to interfere with, or pollute, the prospective findings of the report of Sir William Macpherson, I certainly deprecate them. I have known him for some years and he is a very considerable public servant carrying out a very difficult public duty. It would be best for all of us to wait and see what he has to say and then ponder it with very great care.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is one other profession—if that is the right word for it—where one can escape the consequences of malfeasance, short of criminal actions, by retirement? It is the House of Commons.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

That is so, my Lords, but they do not escape unscathed, because many of them end up here.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, including me! However, does the Minister agree that a difficult transition has been taking place over the past few years from the old attitude of chief constables who automatically defended any policeman who was criticised to the present much better attitude of chief constables who openly investigate and root out those who fall short of the very high standards required? Surely this is essential for the maintenance of the justifiably high reputation of our police force in the world.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I believe that there has been a cultural change. I listened this morning to the broadcast on the radio of the interview with Deputy Assistant Commissioner Grieve. I do not think that anyone could suggest that he is not entirely alert and alive to such matters. However, it is true that there has been serious concern about the number of officers retiring on medical grounds. Fortunately the percentage fell from 50 per cent. of all retirements in 1994–95 to 36 per cent. for the year 1997–98. Indeed, we are looking to meet the target of not more than 33 per cent. by the year 1999–2000.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that the investigation of murder is not an exact science? Indeed, I cannot think of one such inquiry in a decade in the CID which I can look back on and say that I would probably have carried it out in exactly the same way. Therefore, does my noble friend accept that any McCarthy-type witch-hunt of individual officers long after the event could risk injustice being heaped upon injustice? Does he further agree that to make sweeping generalisations about racism in the police service is to indulge in the very hallmark of stereotyping—the sign of racists themselves—which, in my belief, does grave injustice to all those hard-working, competent and honest police officers patrolling the streets day and night on our behalf?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, in my experience, the investigation of murders varies quite substantially. Some murders are extremely easy to investigate and solve—much easier than other types of crime. Some, as my noble friend indicated, are extremely difficult. When one gets a racist overtone, they may become even more difficult. I do not think that one wants McCarthyism, I do not think one wants assertion and I do not believe that one needs to pretend, or persuade oneself, that racism is not a serious problem in many different sections of our country. As I said, it would be best for us not to ponder on McCarthy but to wait for Macpherson. The inquiry which is being carried out is a most difficult one. There will be very significant long-term lessons for us all to heed and to try to learn from.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence clearly demonstrated the inadequacy of the police disciplinary procedure and, more importantly, the inadequacy of the system on the basis that even the people who committed the murder have escaped justice? Will the noble Lord take into account the recommendation made by the Police Complaints Authority to the Home Affairs Committee that one way of dealing with this particular aspect would be to ensure that police officers, even if they retire on medical or other grounds, will still be subject to the disciplinary procedure up a period of four years after retirement? Alternatively, will the noble Lord take into account the view that no officer should be allowed to retire on health or other grounds if he or she is subject to a public complaint which is being investigated?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the report of the Home Affairs Committee is an admirable document; indeed, I believe that it was the first one under the chairmanship of Chris Mullin, who has laboured in this field for a very long time. The Home Secretary accepted those recommendations, some of which will require primary legislation. However, one needs to bear in mind the fact that in cases where a police officer is suspended by his chief constable during a disciplinary investigation, retirement cannot automatically take place.

Lord Knights

My Lords, should it eventually be considered appropriate for accelerated disciplinary proceedings to be started before or continued after retirement, can the Minister say what penalties would be thought appropriate to impose should guilt be established?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, plainly a certain range of penalties, which are available when an officer is serving, would no longer be available—for example, a reduction in rank or other such measures. It seems to me that we should wait to see what the report of Sir William Macpherson says, consider carefully the lessons to be learned, tie them in with the recommendations of the Home Affairs Committee and then take the matter forward. We must be fair to the overwhelming majority of police officers who are fair, honourable and decent. However, we also have to maintain public confidence, which has been very severely eroded following the racist murder of an innocent young man.

Lord Thomas of Gresford

My Lords, does the Minister think that the criminal standard of proof is appropriate in disciplinary proceedings when it is necessary to maintain the confidence of the public in the force, as he has outlined?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

No, my Lords. I am happy to reiterate what Jack Straw said. He believes that that is a significant disadvantage in the context of disciplinary inquiries.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister aware of the situation with which the Greater Manchester Police Authority is now faced following the prosecution of one of its officers who was initially found guilty? The latter was successful on appeal and that has landed the police authority with a bill of £10 million, which it has to pay out of its own resources. Does my noble friend realise the enormous cuts that will have to take place in Greater Manchester in order to fund that settlement?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, if a police authority is sued in the civil courts and if it is found liable—or, as I understand has occurred in this case, wants to compromise the case—it seems to me only right and proper that the damages and the costs should be borne by the authority which has been found to be in default of its duties and obligations.