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North Wales Police and Nicholas Churton

Volume 643: debated on Tuesday 26 June 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered North Wales Police, probation and the murder of Nicholas Churton.

It is a pleasure to be here, and to address you in the chair, Mr Robertson. I always hesitate to bring up individual cases in the House, but this extremely serious case involved the death of one of my constituents. I hesitated to raise the matter because it brings grief and sad memories to his family, but I have notified them of the debate, and I think there are profound matters of public interest in the case that need to be raised.

The primary responsibility of our criminal justice system is to keep people safe, and this case highlights where it did not do so. I will ask questions about why that happened, who was responsible and how we will respond to serious failures in the system in future.

My constituent Nicholas Churton was 67 when he was brutally murdered in his own home in the middle of Wrexham in March 2017. He was murdered by Jordan Davidson, who had a long history of offending, and was, at the time, on licence and serving a sentence of three years for burglary. While still in prison, Davidson received a further 12-month prison sentence for possession of a knife in prison. He was released in December 2016 on licence. Following Davidson’s release, Nicholas Churton complained on a number of occasions to the police about Davidson’s conduct. According to the prosecuting barrister at his trial, Davidson knew that.

In March 2017, just four months after being released on licence, Davidson was arrested for another offence of possession of a knife. None the less, he was released by the police in Wrexham on bail, without having a court appearance. Within three days of his release by the police, Davidson went on a spree, committing serious offences, which culminated in Mr Churton’s murder in his own home in a hammer attack. Davidson’s trial was for not only murder, but four offences of assault and two of robbery, as well as offences of aggravated burglary, attempted robbery, burglary and aggravated vehicle taking.

Davidson pleaded guilty to Mr Churton’s murder and many of the other offences. The offences were so serious that the Attorney General appealed against the tariff imposed by the judge on the ground that it was too lenient. The Court of Appeal agreed with that appeal and increased the sentence.

I am grateful to local journalist Jez Hemming of the Daily Post in north Wales for highlighting the facts of this dreadful case, which were revealed in court. As the Member of Parliament for the constituency where the dreadful incidents occurred, I contacted North Wales police and asked for a private briefing. The chief constable told me that that was not possible because the Independent Office for Police Conduct had started an inquiry into the case to address why the police had not adequately responded to Mr Churton’s complaints about Mr Davidson before the attack. I made it clear that I was very concerned about the extraordinary decision to release Davidson from police custody when he was arrested for possession of an offensive weapon, and asked why that had happened despite Davidson’s long criminal history. I also wanted to understand the role of the community rehabilitation company and the probation services that were dealing with the prisoner on licence, to ensure that adequate systems are in place to protect my constituents. Despite that, the police would not meet me.

That approach is unacceptable and disrespectful of the role of a local Member of Parliament. The police and crime commissioner in north Wales will not meet individual constituents to discuss their cases, unlike Members of Parliament. It is quite clear that the advent of the office of the police and crime commissioner has diminished the accountability of the chief constable to MPs in north Wales. The chief constable has a much more distant relationship with MPs than they did when I was first elected.

Given the Attorney General’s involvement in the appeal and my continued concern about not being properly informed about the facts of the case, I wrote to the Attorney General and pointed out the detail of the case and its seriousness. I am grateful for the response that I received from the Home Office. Following my intervention, the Independent Office for Police Conduct announced a second inquiry, into the decision to release Davidson on police bail. Until I intervened, that matter was not the subject of such an inquiry. I am glad that it is now, but I am not certain that the matter would have been investigated if I had not intervened.

I am pleased to say that, unlike the police, the probation service, which is also involved in the matter, agreed to meet me privately to discuss my concerns about the supervision of those on licence from custody. I fully understand that there are limitations on the information that can be disclosed to a Member of Parliament, but given the appalling set of circumstances that led to the offences, it is entirely appropriate that the MP should be closely involved in ensuring that his or her constituents are safe.

Of course, the set of incidents and the situation with the probation system and the police have a political context that it is important to raise. Since 2010, we have had large reductions in the numbers of police officers on the streets of Wrexham, in common with everywhere else in the UK, which necessarily means that individual police officers are under more pressure in providing a police service. That is a political decision that the Government made, for which they need to be held accountable.

Further, in 2014 and 2015, the Government introduced major structural changes in the probation system. That included changes to who delivered probation services and what was delivered as part of probation, which is clearly relevant to the supervision of prisoners on licence. The reforms were known as Transforming Rehabilitation, and sought to extend statutory rehabilitation to offenders serving custodial sentences of less than 12 months; to introduce nationwide “through the gate” resettlement services for those leaving prison; to open up the market to new rehabilitation providers to get the best out of the public, voluntary and private sectors; to introduce new payment incentives for market providers to focus relentlessly on reforming offenders; to split the delivery of probation services between the national probation service for offenders at high risk of harm and community rehabilitation companies for low and medium-risk offenders; and to reduce offending.

Like many others, I was deeply concerned at the time about the impact that this huge set of reforms would have. I was very aware that they were introduced without additional resources, despite the fact that a group of prisoners on short prison sentences and people who had been released from prison who would not have received supervision previously were expected to receive it under the new system. I was particularly concerned about how we would determine which individuals would be supervised, and which body would do it. Jordan Davidson—the murderer in this case, who had a long criminal history and had been given a relatively short sentence—was one such individual.

The more I look at this case, the more I think that the reforms contributed to the failure of supervision that led to Jordan Davidson’s release on bail and on licence after the serious offence of possession of an offensive weapon, to the subsequent assaults he carried out, and to the death of my constituent, Nicholas Churton.

Last week, after I applied for this debate, the Justice Committee published its excellent report, “Transforming Rehabilitation”, which looked at the probation reforms and was compiled without knowledge of this case. It said:

“We are unconvinced that splitting offenders by risk was the right way to split the probation system. Splitting the system in such a way does not recognise that the risk of harm an individual poses can change over time.”

It continued:

“The splitting of probation services between the National Probation Service and Community Rehabilitation Companies has complicated the delivery of probation services and created a ‘two-tier’ system. Although we heard about joint working going on at a local and national level, problems in the relationship remain.”

Crucially—this is very relevant to this case—it said:

“We are concerned that problems remain regarding data sharing across the criminal justice system.”

I believe that Jordan Davidson’s case highlights many of those issues.

Why did the police not share data about a man who had offensive weapon convictions and a long history of offending, and had been the subject of complaints by Nicholas Churton in the recent past? When Davidson was arrested for another offensive weapon offence, why was he released without even a court appearance? What system was in operation for the supervision of offenders that allowed all this to happen? No single person is responsible for the system, but the then Secretary of State for Justice was a vocal proponent of the change, and proudly made it clear at the time that the system was put in place for ideological reasons. It has now been heavily criticised by the all-party Select Committee and many others.

The appalling case of Nicholas Churton is a real example of the deficiencies of the system created by the former Secretary of State, for which he needs to take personal responsibility. It is disgraceful that, in such a serious case, North Wales police failed to respond adequately to legitimate concerns that I, the elected Member of Parliament for Wrexham, expressed. The confusion in the probation system is exacerbated by the confusion in lines of responsibility created by the office of the police and crime commissioner, who, as far as I am aware, has taken no action in this case.

In short, the situation is a mess, and there have been appalling consequences. We need clear answers, and the former Secretary of State, the police and the bodies tasked with probation and protecting the public must accept responsibility. Only in that way can the public be confident that such a dreadful case will not happen again.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) for securing this debate and for setting out the terrible facts of this very sad case. The Attorney General referred it to the Court of Appeal because of the inadequacy of the initial sentence. The Court of Appeal’s judgment makes for very stark, sobering reading. I extend my sincere condolences to the family of Mr Churton, who was the victim of the most horrendous attack in his home. He was clearly targeted by Davidson because he was elderly and vulnerable, and he was unable to defend himself against Davidson’s ferocity. Davidson is now rightly serving a life sentence with a tariff of 30 years for his wicked murder of Mr Churton.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of issues and made a political link to this case, with which I am afraid I do not agree. I am going to break down those issues. As Jordan Davidson was subject to statutory probation supervision at the time, the Wales community rehabilitation company had to complete a serious further offence review, which identified a number of areas where the practice of those responsible for monitoring Mr Davidson fell below the expected standards. Indeed, there were significant failings. Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service is now overseeing the CRC’s implementation of the improvement actions from that review. Senior officials from the CRC met members of Mr Churton’s family in March and shared with them the victim summary report, which was based on the review.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice will consider the Justice Committee’s recommendations carefully and will respond in due course. This was a significant programme of reform. For instance, 40,000 people who would not previously have been monitored now receive support and supervision upon release. Fewer people reoffend, and there have been some innovative and impressive programmes. Of course, the Ministry of Justice accepts that there have been challenges, and that CRC services need to improve. It is currently in discussions with the providers and will consider all possible options to ensure improvement is delivered.

That is, of course, of no comfort to Mr Churton’s family. I am pleased that the local probation service met them. I imagine they will take little comfort from looking at this after such a traumatic event in their lives, but I hope they found some resolution in that meeting with the probation service.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of the police, and I understand that he is concerned about North Wales police’s lack of engagement with him. To my mind, one of the most important responsibilities of the police and police and crime commissioners is to connect with local residents and answer their concerns, and to ask questions of their chief constable when they have concerns about how the force is delivering policing locally. Police and crime commissioners were introduced to make the police accountable to the population they serve. I urge the hon. Gentleman to press the police and crime commissioner further and insist that he discusses this case with him, because it is obviously so important to the hon. Gentleman and his constituents.

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, there are two Independent Office for Police Conduct investigations into North Wales police’s involvement. I am not in a position to comment on them while they are ongoing, but I am sure that when those reports are handed down, the policing Minister will be pleased to discuss them with the hon. Gentleman to see what further improvements can be made.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of funding. I wish that we did not have to view policing just through the prism of funding, but that seems to be the only line of debate on policing that Opposition Members wish to pursue. I am conscious that I am constrained by the fact that there are two live IOPC investigations. He described funding as a political decision; I must remind him why that decision had to be made. I would not have raised funding in this context, but he has, so I am obliged to put it on record that the reason those hard decisions had to be made was the economic mess in which we found ourselves when the last Labour Government left office.

We are very conscious of the pressures that the police have been under in the last few years, which is precisely why the then Home Secretary protected spending in 2015, and why it has been protected since then. This year, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service has spoken to every constabulary in the country. With the help of police and crime commissioners, we have secured an extra £460 million of funding for police forces.

I am sorry that the Minister takes exception to me raising funding. I do not accept her description of the position in 2010. In 2010, the Conservative Government reduced policing funding for 2010 to 2015 on the basis that the policies that they were pursuing would eliminate our budget deficit by 2015. That policy failed, but none the less we suffered the imposition of cuts between 2010 and 2016. It is fair to individual police officers to point out in a debate such as this where I have made criticisms that they are under more pressure now than they were in 2010. That is a fact.

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman, as the good constituency MP that I know he is, has raised with the local police and crime commissioner the fact that as of March 2017, the police and crime commissioner had held-back reserves equivalent to 24.1% of funding for the local police force, or £34.4 million in savings. The hon. Gentleman talks about political decisions; presumably it is a political decision by the police and crime commissioner not to spend that money on frontline policing.

I am very conscious of the gravity of this case; frankly, there are times when the public want us just to get on with it and sort things out, rather than have these back and forth arguments about funding. The fact is that we have protected spending and it is now increasing this year by £460 million. Any police and crime commissioner or chief constable who wants to spend that money on frontline policing however they see fit for their local area will have our support. That is their decision.

Data sharing sadly is a point raised not just in this context but in other cases, where there are serious incidents of violence and it emerges that various agencies involved in the run-up to an incident did not share information in the way that we would wish. To declare the fact that agencies can and should share information for safeguarding purposes, we amended the Data Protection Act to include a statement to that effect. I hope that will provide reassurance to those agencies that hold information—not just the police but social services, the medical profession and others. That may help to safeguard children or vulnerable adults. I hope that amendment to the Act will give them comfort, enable them to do that and create a culture in which agencies realise that in certain circumstances, they are allowed to share information where it may help to keep people safe. I hope that change will reassure the hon. Gentleman and Mr Churton’s family for the future.

I want to praise the actions of two police officers in North Wales. During Mr Davidson’s tirade of crime in the aftermath of the murder, police constables Rhys Rushby and David Hall arrested Mr Davidson and were very badly injured in the process. They were extraordinarily brave, selfless and devoted to their duty. I was very pleased to hear that their bravery has been recognised not just by their own force but in their nomination for a national police bravery award. I give them my thanks and wish them the best of luck in that ceremony. This is just one example of the daily dangers faced by our police officers. We must thank them for facing them

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. He is an assiduous constituency MP; we have met to discuss other issues relating to behaviour in and around his constituency. He has raised this important issue because he wants to ensure that the thoughts of the Churton family are heard and, just as importantly, that actions are taken by the agencies involved to ensure that these terrible mistakes are not repeated. I thank him for his contribution.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.