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Don and Anita Horton

Volume 522: debated on Friday 4 February 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(James Duddridge.)

New MPs see many cases of human suffering, and people daily write to and contact new MPs with all kinds of difficult stories, but of all the cases I have come across since being elected last year, this is the one in which I see the most injustice.

I am hugely grateful to the Speaker for allowing this debate, as I have cared about and campaigned on the issue for many months. Today, I want to recount a story of two utterly decent, salt-of-the-earth individuals, who do the right thing, obey the law, have worked hard, saved hard all their lives and suffered unnecessarily—pointlessly—because of the actions of state agencies. Don and Anita Horton have not just suffered; they have experienced an enormous injustice, which has caused misery to themselves and to their immediate family and neighbours. Worst of all, their suffering has been completely in vain.

Anita Horton was employed by the Benefits Agency from February 1994 until her retirement in May 1999, aged 61. She returned to work for Jobcentre Plus in April 2001 until April 2003, when she was 65. She was a dedicated public servant with an honourable record of helping people to return to work. During her employment, she became aware that an individual was claiming disability benefits, and there was strong evidence to suggest that the individual’s claim was fraudulent, so she reported it to the fraud team. She was told that, “due to staff problems”, an investigation would not be possible.

The individual was witnessed on several occasions carrying heavy objects, such as bed bases and bags of cement. He was often seen climbing nimbly up ladders to trim tall trees, and he reportedly worked as a cash-in-hand labourer and gardener. The Hortons felt that this threw some doubt on his disability benefit claims, so as citizens they felt obliged to report this to the Jobcentre Plus fraud team.

On 14 March 2006, Don and Anita Horton and many neighbours gave witness statements to Paul Carlisle, who then spent several days making video recordings and interviewing the individual concerned. As a consequence, however, personal details on the statements by Don and Anita were passed without their permission to the suspect individual. Those statements were made in good faith, and Don and Anita had thought that they would be protected by the Data Protection Act 1998.

During the period when the individual was in receipt of benefits—it is believed that he continues to receive some—there are anecdotal reports of him purchasing a four-bedroom house and two new cars, of significant refurbishment work on his house, such as new central heating, and of him boasting that his bank balance was £148,000. Evidence of this is held by Essex police. After this, the individual began to walk occasionally with a stick. However, he has been regularly seen in the town centre carrying several heavy shopping bags without a stick, climbing across ditches in the local park, and, of course, continuing to work in a manual job.

For the past four years—that is, 48 months—Don and Anita, and their neighbours, have been continually harassed, intimidated and, in some cases, physically assaulted by the said individual. Their cars have been damaged. They have been constantly verbally abused, and many attempts have been made to break their windows or damage their property. Don and Anita were provided with personal alarms by the police following regular threats of violence, and even death threats, by the individual.

It took three years of this ordeal before a court date was set—29 June 2009. The individual was due to appear at Harlow magistrates court, but the witness care office informed Don and Anita that the individual was too ill to attend. A new hearing was set for 19 October 2009, but this in turn was subsequently postponed. On the same day that the individual was “too ill” to attend the magistrates court—29 June 2009—it transpired that he was in Harlow county court with his wife issuing a summons against Mr Horton for the sum of £5,000, citing “loss of benefit”, “using the police as harassment” and a range of other claims that did not hold water. As a result, Don and Anita, who are an elderly couple, had to employ a solicitor and a barrister to defend themselves. This has cost them a considerable amount of money—nearly £8,000 to date, which is a significant portion of their life savings.

But it gets worse. On 5 October 2009, Don and Anita were in Harlow town centre and saw the individual coming towards them. He appeared physically very fit, was walking without a stick or crutches, and was carrying many heavy bags of shopping. Paul Carlisle, the fraud investigator, had previously suggested that photographic evidence would be crucial in court. However, when Don tried to take a photo, both the individual and his wife attacked him and pushed him to the ground. They pushed his face into the concrete and dug their knees into Mr Horton’s back to try to keep him crushed into the ground. There were many witnesses, and the individual was subsequently arrested.

The following day, however, the police came and arrested Mr Don Horton instead. The individual had alleged while in custody that Mr Horton had been harassing him. Don’s health had been seriously deteriorating all this time, and his daughter had to accompany him to the police station. They then spent several hours waiting in a cold police cell. A duty solicitor attended and a recorded interview was made. Don’s daughter had to stay by his side for many hours before the official wheels turned and the case was dismissed as nonsense.

Of course, no further action was taken, but the incident was symptomatic of this case: the public justice system was malfunctioning and failing to protect the most vulnerable and the good people who do the right thing. In the meantime, the stress and strain had a severe impact on Don’s health from which he is still recovering. I ask you, Mr Deputy Speaker, what kind of country we are living in when the criminal justice system can be abused in such a way. The state exists, at its most basic level, to fight crime, to protect vulnerable and good people, and to uphold the rule of law; that is why we pay our taxes. What is so deeply depressing about this case is that time and again, whether from long delays, incompetence, or sheer calculating indifference, the state has failed to do its most basic job.

Today, Mr and Mrs Horton have withdrawn as witnesses out of despair that the court case will never happen. The individual is still free and is reportedly still claiming disability benefit. Mr and Mrs Horton are still living in fear.

Since I was elected as MP for Harlow and the surrounding villages, I have tried unsuccessfully to raise this matter with the authorities. On the crucial point of data protection, I wrote to the Information Commissioner’s Office setting out the years of torment, fear and suffering that have afflicted Mr and Mrs Horton. On 13 August 2010, the ICO’s head of complaints resolution, Mr Laing, replied. He was kind enough to inform me in detail about the

“eight principles of good information handling”.

He wrote that under

“section 42 of the Data Protection Act, an individual can ask the Commissioner to conduct an assessment as to whether it is likely or unlikely that an organisation has complied with the Data Protection Act.

If we consider it is unlikely that an organisation has complied with the Data Protection Act, our aim is to ensure that the organisation understands its obligations and takes any steps necessary to help ensure compliance, either in that particular case, or in the future”.

He went on to state:

“Whilst it appears that the Data Protection Act may have been breached in this case, we do not have enough information to make a formal assessment of this matter.

If your constituents would like us to assess it, they should complete and return the complaints form at the back of the enclosed leaflet”.

That is more PC Plod than Batman and Robin. After more than four years of hitting a brick wall, what confidence should Mr and Mrs Horton have that completing and returning a complaints form on the back of a leaflet will lead to anything other than more bureaucracy and delay?

I feel a sense of frustration in this case in particular because when I have tried to deal with it by writing to the agencies concerned, all I have received is the inhuman and cold response of Sir Humphrey at his most dull, lethargic and indifferent. Soon after receiving the letter, I spoke to the Information Commissioner himself, Mr Christopher Graham, in my office and raised the case with him, but nothing has happened. Quite simply, what is the point of having an Information Commissioner’s Office to police the Data Protection Act if the response is worthy of the Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens? To quote from that book:

“The Circumlocution Office was (as everybody knows without being told) the most important Department under Government… If another Gunpowder Plot had been discovered half an hour before the lighting of the match, nobody would have been justified in saving the parliament until there had been half a score of boards, half a bushel of minutes, several sacks of official memoranda, and a family-vault full of ungrammatical correspondence, on the part of the Circumlocution Office… Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving—HOW NOT TO DO IT.”

Under different circumstances, the sloth of public agencies might be cause for a wry joke or mere annoyance, but in this case the state stood idly by for four years while an elderly couple were systematically persecuted. Don and Anita have been forced to spend a substantial chunk of their life savings to defend themselves against baseless legal claims from the individual in question. What is the result? Nothing.

There are three problems in this case. First, Don and Anita’s identities were released by Jobcentre Plus. Secondly, the judicial system has not brought the individual to justice. There are multi-agency difficulties in due process, but we must have a justice system that is concerned with justice—victims should be protected and criminals prosecuted. Thirdly, had Don and Anita gone to trial, their identities would have been released anyway because of our rules on witness anonymity.

We must protect decent people who do the right thing. That applies not just to Mr and Mrs Horton, but to others in the future. There is no compensation in sight for the Hortons. However, the issue is not with what they are technically entitled to if they had the strength and finance to fight tooth and nail through every court in Europe; it is that nobody seems interested or is bothered to help. What is the point of coming to Parliament and making laws if when people do the right thing they suffer? What is the point of laws at all if the good and decent suffer because of incompetence and bureaucracy? We should know that the character of the state is revealed not in its ambitions but in its actions, not in its policy but in its implementation. The characters of Jobcentre Plus and the courts system have been woeful.

I know that Mr and Mrs Horton are in the House today and will want to hear the Minister’s reply. Before I sit down, I should add that I have been very grateful for the Minister’s concern in this matter, particularly in my discussions with him. I also very much appreciate the fact that he is going to meet Mr and Mrs Horton after the debate.

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for the way in which he has helped me and my officials prepare for the debate, so that I can give him as constructive an answer and advice as possible. I understand the restrictions that apply to my dealing with an individual case, but his constituents are extremely well served by the way in which he has raised their case. They have an extremely doughty champion acting on their behalf.

My hon. Friend raised a number of issues, including criminal evidence, the handling of witness statements made for the purposes of criminal proceedings and the protection of witnesses from intimidation and harassment. I will respond to those points in my capacity as the Minister responsible for criminal justice issues. He also mentioned the process followed by the Department for Work and Pensions in relation to the investigation of benefit fraud and expressed concern about the processes adopted by the Information Commissioner in dealing with allegations of the mishandling of data. I will deal with those two points later.

It is not appropriate for me, as a Minister, to comment on any particular case, but I wish to make it absolutely clear that I wholly share my hon. Friend’s concern that those who perform a public duty by informing on people who commit benefit fraud or any offence should not be subjected to harassment. Society depends on courageous people who witness crime coming forward, reporting it and giving evidence. Witnesses are vital to our criminal justice system, and it is crucial that they receive appropriate support when they give evidence in criminal proceedings to ensure that justice is done.

However, justice also requires us to ensure that the defendant has a fair trial. When someone gives evidence about an alleged offence, they may be asked to make a signed witness statement, which will contain their name and address. Once the statement has been made, what happens to it depends on whether anyone is charged with an offence and prosecuted in the courts. I understand that when taking a witness statement, DWP investigators explain to those giving it that they may be asked or required to give evidence in court. The signed statement includes wording to that effect.

If no charge is brought, the matter will go no further, but if someone is charged, the prosecutor may wish to use the witness’s evidence as part of the case against the accused. In those circumstances, the prosecutor must give copies of all the prosecution evidence to the defence in advance of the trial. Any witness statements will have the address of the witness removed, but not their name. That reflects the general long-standing principle of English common law that defendants have the right to know the identity of their accusers and to challenge the evidence against them.

The Government take the issue of witness intimidation very seriously. It is a criminal offence under section 51 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, punishable on conviction in the Crown court with a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment, or a fine, or both. On conviction in a magistrates court, the maximum penalty is six months’ imprisonment, or a fine, or both.

It is also an offence under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 for someone to pursue a course of conduct that amounts to harassment of another, and which he knows, or ought to know, amounts to that. The offence is punishable on conviction by a maximum of six months’ imprisonment or a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale. There is also a separate, more serious offence that is committed when the offender pursues a course of conduct that he knows, or ought to know, will cause the victim to fear violence. That carries a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment, or a fine, or both. A court sentencing someone convicted of either offence may also impose a restraining order prohibiting specified forms of behaviour such as deliberate communication with the victim, and breach of a restraining order is a criminal offence also punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment.

However, a civil remedy, which enables a victim of harassment to seek an injunction against the person harassing them, is also available under the Act. That can be obtained without securing a conviction for harassment. Investigation of allegations of intimidation or harassment is, of course, a matter for the police. Any decision to prosecute is the responsibility of the Crown Prosecution Service.

When witnesses fear intimidation and harassment, they can be supported in several other ways before and during the trial. Before the trial, intimidation should be reported to the police, who can provide appropriate advice and support. Police forces can arrange for a witness and their family to relocate temporarily or permanently to a different neighbourhood in the area through the local housing authority. When witnesses remain in their homes, several target-hardening measures are available to improve home and personal security. They include additional locks, alarms, sensors, fire-proof letter boxes, panic alarms, CCTV cameras and mobile phones.

In addition to the criminal offences that I have mentioned, bail conditions can be imposed to prevent the accused from approaching any witness. In appropriate cases, police forces can apply to the court to grant an injunction or an antisocial behaviour order against anyone intimidating a witness.

We have invested in a programme of training that is available to all officers, and the victim’s code and the witness charter require all agencies to identify vulnerable and intimidated witnesses, and to work together to provide them with an enhanced service. If the witness is asked to give evidence orally in court, and he or she considers that he or she needs assistance when giving oral evidence because they are in fear of testifying or in distress, the prosecutor may apply to the court before the trial for special measures to enable them to give their best evidence.

Special measures include giving evidence by live link from outside the courtroom or giving evidence with a screen round the witness box. Both measures prevent the witness from viewing the defendant. In cases of intimidation, an application may also be made for the public gallery to be cleared so that witnesses can give evidence in private. Decisions on special measures are a matter for the court, after taking the witness’s views into account.

When a witness fears that they will be harassed and intimidated in the court building, if the court is notified in advance of the particular needs of the victim or witness, it will endeavour to meet those needs wherever physically possible—for example, by arranging for them to enter the court by a different entrance from the public, and providing separate seating inside and outside the courtroom.

If certain criteria set out in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 are met, the court may permit a witness to give oral evidence anonymously. The defendant retains the right to cross-examine the witness to test their evidence, but the identity of the witness is concealed. The legislation imposes three strict conditions before a witness anonymity order may be made. They are: that the measures are necessary to protect the safety of the witness or another person; to prevent serious damage to property or real harm to the public interest; and that they are consistent with a fair trial, and an interests of justice test.

Additionally, before making an order, the court is required to take into consideration the general right of a defendant to know the identity of a witness. Although the legislation does not stipulate that witness anonymity is an “exceptional measure”, in practice it is considered to be so. The Court of Appeal in the case of R v. Mayers explicitly refers to

“the exceptional circumstances permitted by the Act.”

I hope that my hon. Friend can see that the Ministry of Justice takes witness protection very seriously. I appreciate that the measures that I have described did not come into play, because the case that he described did not proceed to trial. However, I hope that it gives his constituents some reassurance to know that witness intimidation and witness protection is taken seriously and that we have significant powers to try to provide that protection.

I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks so far. However, will he confirm on the record that he agrees that it was wrong that the details of my constituents, who had reported what was going on, were subsequently handed to the accused?

That is a probing intervention, so let me deal with issues that are related to that. The Department for Work and Pensions operates a scheme whereby members of the public can report benefit fraud anonymously. That can be done online or by telephoning the national benefit fraud hotline.

The Department for Work and Pensions does not disclose the details of people who report fraud but make it clear that they wish to remain anonymous. They are treated as informants and their identities will be revealed only if the court orders disclosure. I appreciate my hon. Friend’s concern for his constituents. They feel that they have suffered as a consequence of their willingness to perform a public duty. I am very sorry if they feel that they have experienced profound difficulties and understand their concerns about the way in which they believe that the Department for Work and Pensions has dealt with their case. Of course, this disappointment will be redoubled by the fact that Mrs Horton was a former employee.

If anyone is not satisfied with how Jobcentre Plus has dealt with their case, it is open to them to contact the independent case examiner for a review of the case. The independent case examiner acts as an independent referee for people who feel that a number of Government agencies or businesses have not treated them fairly or dealt with complaints in a satisfactory manner. These agencies or businesses include Jobcentre Plus. If the independent case examiner accepts the complaint for action, and if it cannot be addressed without full examination, an investigation undertakes a review of the paper evidence provided by the agency or the business concerned. The officer then considers whether the complaint can be settled through mediation. If mediation is not appropriate, a report is submitted to the independent case examiner, who will consider whether there is any evidence of maladministration. If there is evidence of maladministration and the agency or business concerned did not offer redress before the referral to the examiner, the complaint will be upheld.

Complainants must approach the independent case examiner within six months of receiving a final reply to their complaint from the agency or business they consider to be unsatisfactory. In the case of my hon. Friend’s constituents, I understand that the final letter was sent by the chief executive of Jobcentre Plus on 31 August last year. This letter explained that the independent case examiner offers a free, impartial resolution service and gave details of how it may be contacted. Therefore, his constituents have until the end of the month to initiate the complaints procedure, should they wish to do so. If a complaint is made, and should the examiner find that there was maladministration by Jobcentre Plus that caused them hardship or suffering, I understand that the agency can consider making an ex gratia payment.

My hon. Friend also complained about how the Information Commissioner’s Office responded to allegations of breaches of data protection legislation and about how information about his constituents was handled by Jobcentre Plus. The Government take the protection of personal data and the effectiveness of public bodies, such as the ICO, very seriously. However, the ICO is an independent public body set up to uphold information rights in the public interest. Because of its independence, it would be inappropriate for me, on behalf of the Government, to comment on the ICO’s handling of any particular case.

If having exhausted the ICO case review and his own service complaints procedure, however, a member of the public remains dissatisfied with the ICO’s handling of a case, the parliamentary and health service ombudsman has responsibility for undertaking independent investigations into complaints about Government Departments and a range of public bodies that include the ICO. It is open to my hon. Friend and his constituents, therefore, to pursue his concerns about the ICO with the ombudsman. Complaints procedures may appear formal, but they provide a way for members of the public to have their complaints against the actions of public organisations and agencies reviewed by public bodies.

I hope that my hon. Friend’s constituents will feel that they are still able to pursue their complaints through those routes, and that those opportunities will be of some comfort and use to them. I understand from the difficulties that his constituents have faced; the heart of anyone hearing those stories will obviously go out to them. However, they are fortunate enough to enjoy the good advice of my hon. Friend, and I am quite sure that, whatever course of action he and they deem appropriate, he will pursue the matter with his customary vigour and skill.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.