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Police (Complaints)

Volume 895: debated on Thursday 17 July 1975

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13.

asked he Secretary of State for the Home Department when he expects to make an announcement about independent investigation of complaints against the police.

I would refer my hon. Friend to the answer I gave to a Question from my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) on 15th July.—[Vol. 895, c. 423–8.]

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I read that answer with great care and that in certain respects it is extremely disappointing to Labour Members? Does he agree that an independent element of invesigation of complaints is not enough? What is needed is an independant system which has integrity and which is absolutely independent of the police, if confidence in this aspect of investigation is to be won from the public.

I do not agree with my hon. Friend. It has been entirely desirable to introduce an independent element, and that, I believe, has been effectively done. I believe this goes well beyond the scheme proposed by the right hon. Member for Carshalton (Mr. Carr), though that was a considerable advance on anything hitherto proposed. I believe that the independent element here is real and effective, but in the situation in which 17,000 or so complaints have to be dealt with each year I have to have regard to what is administratively practical and what is compatible with the functioning of an effective police service combined with reasonable investigation of the serious complaints. After consideration of this matter I think I have struck a reasonable balance. It would not be right to go on without an effective and fully independent element. Equally, it would not be right to erect a procedure by which the police force was hardly able to function as a police force and became entirely a body for investigating or assisting in the investigation of complaints.

I welcome the progress made in bringing forward the outline scheme. It would have been more helpful if the House had been able to discuss the subject a week ago instead of having a Written Answer a few days later. Will the Home Secretary spell out the position of a constable who feels that a malicious complaint has been made against him and who wishes to have redress? There has been Press comment on this matter.

We always try to bring proposals forward as soon as we reasonably can. The subject of the debate chosen by the Opposition was police recruitment. Therefore, it did not directly include this matter. I was anxious to make a statement before Questions today so that supplementary questions could he asked about it.

For the first time I have introduced in the scheme a substantial independent element with powers of investigation. It is important that a constable should have certain protection against malicious complaints. It is already possible for prosecutions to be taken under the Criminal Law Act 1967. I indicated that, in general, chief officers of police should follow the practice which already applies in about one-third of police areas. Unless there are compelling reasons to the contrary, the constable complained about should be able to see the complainant. That will enable the constable—in conjunction with the view taken by the Police Federation—to enjoy a more effective safeguard.

I commend my right hon. Friend for his pledge to bring legislation before the House and for standing up to pressure from the police authori- ties that they should become an independent element, which would have been unsuitable. Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that under the outlined proposals every complaint will come before the Commission without the complainant having to make the running himself at each stage, including those cases where the Director of Public Prosecutions recommends that there should not be a prosecution?

Why is it unsuitable for the police constables who have had complaints made against them to have recourse to the commission, just like anyone else?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's generally helpful words of commendation. Perhaps that is too strong. However, they were clearly intended to be helpful. He is right in what he says about the police authorities. They have an important role to play. However, I do not think that they would have satisfied the House as being the independent authorities for the purposes with which we are dealing.

The position of the Commission and the Director of Public Prosecutions is that if a case is referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions for possible prosecution, and he decides to prosecute, that settles the matter. However, if he decides not to prosecute there can be no question of disciplinary proceedings for the offence. That principle could not be breached without breaching what I regard as the important principle of double jeopardy. There might be an effront to police disciplinary proceedings. That could be taken up by the deputy chief constable, but there would be the full right for the commission to come in, as in all normal circumstances.

I shall consider my hon. Friend's last point before the legislation is drawn up. However, I have not received any representations on this point from the Police Federation.