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Police Custody (Deaths)

Volume 977: debated on Thursday 31 January 1980

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1.

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will set up an inquiry into deaths in police custody.

As the hon. Member is aware, I have asked chief officers of police for further detailed information. I will make it available to him as soon as possible, and will consider what further action, if any, may be appropriate.

Since the original police version of the death of Jimmy Kelly was that he died of a heart attack, and since the full facts have emerged only because a local action committee happened to be set up, will the right hon. Gentleman accept that public disquiet about whether there are other Jimmy Kelly-type cases concealed beneath the bland statistics will be stilled only by a proper public inquiry into these 245 deaths, especially since, in 10 per cent. of cases, there was no inquest, and, even when there was an inquest, in 15 cases there was an open verdict, including five cases of fractured skulls?

It would be improper for me to make any comment on the Jimmy Kelly case in view of the forthcoming inquest. To that, I must stick. I do not believe that when we have considered the matter carefully—I understand that the Select Committee on Home Affairs is to consider it—it will be found necessary to have a public inquiry. At present, however, I must make no further comment pending the inquest which, I believe, is the first and proper legal proceeding.

Whatever may be the reason for the present question, does not my right hon. Friend agree that recent and well-publicised suggestions made by some Opposition Members that the police may have been responsible for deaths in custody, that the Director of Public Prosecutions has neglected his duties to prosecute and that chief constables may have exceeded theirs, are all signs of a rather nasty and damaging campaign aimed at undermining the authority of those responsible for law and order?

There must, in all these cases, be absolutely no question of a cover-up of any sort. Nor, so long as I am Home Secretary, will there be any question of that. I would also suggest that, if there should be no cover-up, there is the other point that there should be no witch-hunt. It is only fair to police officers that they should be treated like other citizens and that they should not be condemned before anything has been found against them.

In judging the seriousness of these statistics will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind the startling contrast with the facts that in Northern Ireland, over the last 10 years, despite everything else, there has been only one death in police custody?

I am grateful for what the right hon. Gentleman says. I had some knowledge of that myself. I appreciate exactly the point that he makes.

Has my right hon. Friend had drawn to his attention the attack on the chief constable of Devon and Cornwall? Does he realise that this is very much resented by most people living in the area who believe that the chief constable has contributed more towards achieving co-operation between the community and the police than probably any other chief constable in the country?

It is not for me to comment upon what hon. Members say in the House. It is for them to substantiate what they say. My impression of the chief constable of Devon and Cornwall, made at first hand when I visited his force, conforms exactly with the view of my hon. Friend. I am sure that he is held in high regard in Devon and Cornwall and that he is carrying out a system of policing that many people strongly favour.

Will the Home Secretary recognise, unlike his hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Fylde (Mr. Gardner), that in my speech last Friday I said just that about the chief constable of Devon and Cornwall? In relation to the wider question, will the right hon. Gentleman recognise that what concerns people are not the details of individual deaths, but whether the system as a whole needs looking at? It is for that reason that hon. Members are calling for a public inquiry. There is genuine public concern. No one is involved in a witch-hunt. No one wants to get at any individual constable. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is concern that can be dealt with only by a public inquiry?

Yes, I noticed that the hon. Member said that in his speech. I did him the courtesy of reading his speech. But the fact remains that he cast aspersions on the way in which the chief constable of Devon and Cornwall was carrying out his duties. I do not accept those aspersions. On the hon. Member's other point, I believe that the process of going through inquests, which we follow at present, is the right approach, and I hope that it will be proved to be so in some of the cases that are coming up.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that if I had to advise my constituents about who was most likely to give them a fair hearing—Mr. Alderson and Mr. Anderton on the one hand, or the hon. Members for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) and York (Mr. Lyon) on the other—I would unhesitatingly choose the former two? Would he wish to disabuse me in respect of that advice?

It would be much safer for me neither to agree nor disagree. Perhaps I might have a personal prejudice, which is probably very well known.

Is the Secretary of State aware that we strongly support his statement about the way in which he sees his role as Home Secretary? Does he realise that we are glad that information will be given to the Select Committee, because the position certainly needs clarification before any further allegations are made? Is he aware that there is still one point of concern? I believe that the names of those involved in these cases should not be bandied about unless the families concerned have given their permission. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there are times when families do not want this knowledge bandied about and it is only courteous to ask their permission first?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making that last point. I specificaly said that I would make this detailed information available to the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), because he had specifically asked me for it. If the hon. Member for Oldham, West makes these names public, that is his responsibility. If the House told me that I should make the names public I should hope that before it did it would consider very carefully the position of the relatives. In certain cases it would be possible to cause distress quite unwittingly.