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Police (Complaints)

Volume 13: debated on Thursday 26 November 1981

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8.

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will set up an inquiry to study methods of independent investigation of complaints against the police.

10.

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he has given further consideration to the establishment of an independent body looking into complaints made against police officers; and if he will make a statement.

11.

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if the Police Federation has yet approached him in regard to its wish for an independent body other than the police to inquire into complaints made against the police.

15.

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what representations he has received from the Police Federation concerning the establishment of an independent complaints procedure.

As I said in my statement to the House yesterday, I accept that the procedure for handling complaints against the police must be altered if it is to command public confidence, and I shall bring forward proposals as soon as I can. I met representatives of the Police Federation last week and I shall take into account their views.

I welcome the fact that the Home Secretary is aware that there is a widespread and dangerous lack of public confidence in the system which Roy Jenkins invented, and which was serverely criticised at the time by Back Benchers on each side of the House. Is the Home Secretary aware that the only sensible remedy is to have an ombudsman, appointed by and responsible to the House, to look into complaints that arise against the police?

We have to be careful about leaping into instant solutions, because there are many problems. Any system has to marry the responsibility of a chief constable for the discipline of his force with the complaints that may be made against individuals in that force. The chief constable is accountable for his force. He cannot, therefore, have the discipline of his force—[Interruption.] He is accountable for the discipline of his force.

Order. An occasional intervention is one thing, but to shout from a sedentary position is ill-mannered, apart from being unparliamentary.

He is responsible for the work of his force and for the money that is provided to the police authority in his area. All the Labour Members who were shouting at me are advocating more accountability for chief constables. That being so, they must not deprive chief constables of the right to be responsible for the discipline of the members of their forces. That responsibility has to be married to complaints and the procedure for dealing with them. I am prepared to listen to anyone who has views on how we should effect that marriage. It is a problem that the House was not able to solve in 1976. It did not solve it, because it produced an Act that nobody now likes.

Order. I propose to call first those hon. Members whose questions are being answered.

Having apparently accepted the principle of the need for an independent body to investigate complaints against the police, will the right hon. Gentleman say when he will be in a position to report to the House? Is it likely that he will report before we go into the Christmas Recess?

I shall not report to the House before we go into the Christmas Recess. I am ready to discuss with right hon. and hon. Members from both sides of the House how we should devise—this is something that the House should do together—a sensible system that will meet the requirements of both discipline and the handling of complaints. The need to deal with discipline is important. Discipline and complaints cannot be separated, because they frequently lie in the same area. That is why the House should work together to find the right answer. If Labour Members are so sure about their answer, I shall be grateful if they will talk to me and tell me exactly what they want to do.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that when he uses the words "accountable" or "accountability" the majority of the electorate understands him to be referring to an elected body and not to be talking in vacuo? The Police Federation, in asking for what in effect would be a civilian body of the right hon. Gentleman's choosing, or the result of an election, thinks that that will defend it against many of the accusations that are brought against its members. Will he note that the Association of Chief Police Officers profoundly disagrees with the federation because it feels that it is accountable only to itself? What will he do to resolve the problem of the Association of Chief Police Officers differing from the Police Federation?

I think that the hon. Gentleman's comments are somewhat unfair to chief police officers. The federation offered to accept a totally independent system. However, I ask the House to consider some of the caveats and some of the proposals that the federation submitted at the same time, which would go with an independent system and which would be unacceptable to hon. Members. We must not imagine that the Police Federation's ideas would be easily acceptable in the House, because they would not.

Given the depth of public feeling on this issue, as recognised in the Scarman report, and the likelihood that any new system of independent complaint investigation will cost money, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that a balance must be struck between the money that is to be spent and the confidence that is to be gained? Does he also accept that only radical measures can instil the degree of confidence that is required among the public even if there is a fairly substantial increase in expenditure?

The hon. Gentleman touched on an important issue when he referred to expenditure. I have managed over a period to get money for the police, but there are many throughout the country who want the money that is spent on the police to be used in seeking to prevent crime and on helping them to be safe in their own homes. We must remember that hard fact. I accept that the need for a complaints procedure is important. However, if the procedure proved to be wildly expensive, and consequently had an effect on other police operations, I do not think that the House would approve of it.

I think that we all accept that there should be reasonable machinery in operation to deal with complaints against the police. Nevertheless, does my right hon. Friend agree that there are those inside and outside the House who seize every opportunity to make unreasonable complaints and to fan any incident into real harassment of a most important public service?

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. In any system that we devise we should seek to deal with serious complaints by means of the independent element, while at the same time getting rid of a great deal of bureaucratic nonsense involving small, invalid and totally useless complaints.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a Minister should be answerable in Parliament and to questioning in respect of any system that we introduce?

Yes, I think that that is fair. However, the present system has not prevented questions being put to me in the House. I seem to be questioned all the time about it. There are many hon. Members, like the hon. Member for Wood Green (Mr. Race), who think that they can remove themselves from responsibility for what we all did in 1976. I do not seek to remove myself from it, even though I voted against that measure. I am bound to say that I could not think of a better system. We are all in this together. We all decided to accept the proposal that was contained in the 1976 measure. We all know now that we were wrong, and we are trying to find the best way to put things right.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is aware of the general welcome that has been given to his clear indication that he proposes to move on this matter. Allowing for the complications involved in a new scheme and the cost of implementing it, will he confirm now that when he is ready to produce a new scheme he will avoid the principle of policemen against whom complaints are made being investigated and judged by other policemen and nobody else?

Without committing myself in too much detail, I am prepared to say in advance of producing a new scheme that I shall be pleased to have discussions with the right hon. Gentleman, with the Select Committee and with any number of hon. Members to determine how we can meet all the difficult problems that are involved.