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Metropolitan Police: Stephen Port Murders Inquest

Volume 705: debated on Monday 13 December 2021

(Urgent Question:) To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department, if she will make a statement on the Metropolitan Police and the inquest into the deaths of Anthony Walgate, Gabriel Kovari, Daniel Whitworth, and Jack Taylor.

I am sure the thoughts of the whole House are with the families and friends of Anthony Walgate, Gabriel Kovari, Daniel Whitworth, and Jack Taylor. The stories we have all read, of their lives and terrible deaths, have moved and horrified the country.

The Government and the people we serve expect the highest standards from the police as they carry out their vital work protecting the public and investigating serious crimes. The conclusions of the inquest have shown that those standards were not met, and that investigative failures probably contributed to the deaths of three of the young men. The Metropolitan police has accepted as much. There are now serious questions for it to answer. It is profoundly important that the force takes responsibility for past failings and makes sure they are not repeated.

The primarily accountability body for the Met is the Mayor of London and the London Assembly, but the Metropolitan Police Service has assured us it is putting in place significant improvements, including: more and better trained investigators; new structures so that intelligence teams, specialists and officers on the ground can work more closely to identify and link crimes much earlier; and work to develop a greater understanding of the drug GHB and its use as a weapon in sexual assaults. It is also essential that the police build trust with all London’s communities and that includes LGBT+ community. I know that the Commissioner and her team are committed to doing so, at a time when the trust the public have in them has been seriously shaken by recent events.

It is, of course, right that the police handling of cases such as these is subject to independent scrutiny. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services has been asked by the deputy Mayor of London and the commissioner to conduct an inspection into the standard of the Metropolitan Police Service’s investigations, and the Independent Office for Police Conduct is now assessing whether to reopen, either in full or in part, the investigation into the way that the Metropolitan Police Service handled the inquiries into the deaths of these young men.

The police perform an enormously important function in our society. It is a job that, on the whole, they do with skill, courage and professionalism. Only last Thursday, I attended the police bravery awards and heard stories of selfless heroism, but when things go wrong, it is profoundly important that lessons are learned and applied. We will continue to hold the Metropolitan police service and the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime to account in making sure that the failures highlighted by these truly awful cases are addressed.

I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker. I have to say to the Minister that this happened in London, but it might and could have happened anywhere in the country, and therefore, it is a matter for him. The premature deaths of four young, gay men, who were robbed of their lives, is an unspeakable tragedy, especially because six years after it happened, it has now finally been publicly conceded that the deaths of three of them—Gabriel Kovari, Daniel Whitworth and Jack Taylor —could have been avoided if the police had properly investigated the killing of the first victim, Anthony Walgate.

The litany of police errors is simply horrific, including the refusal to check the murderer’s laptop because it was too expensive; the failure to engage appropriately with the partners and families; the failure to check the authenticity of a fake suicide note; the failure to check CCTV; and the incomprehensible failure to link the deaths when three of the bodies were found in or close to St Margaret’s churchyard in my constituency.

Does the Minister agree with the friends, partners and families that the Metropolitan police service is prejudiced and institutionally homophobic? Does he at the very least agree that, given the facts of the cases, homophobia must have been a factor that influenced the actions and inactions of the police? In these circumstances, will he please order a full public inquiry to examine whether there is institutional homophobia in the police service? Does he agree that such an inquiry is vital if the police are to gain the trust of the LGBTQ+ community? Does he further agree that the inquiry is also vital to ensure that such a tragedy never happens again?

Seventeen police officers were investigated by the IOPC in 2015. None was sacked and five have since been promoted. Is the Independent Office for Police Conduct fit for purpose? What action has the Minister taken to ensure that all police officers treat gay partners in the same way as they would any other partner, with appropriate respect and a proper duty of care? Action by the Home Office, the Metropolitan police and the Mayor is essential if the homophobia in our police service is to be properly and thoroughly investigated and addressed.

I agree with the right hon. Lady that this was an unspeakable tragedy, which has moved all of us in its dreadfulness. I cannot imagine what those families have gone through, not least in living through the deaths of their loved ones, but also with the investigation and this dreadful but necessary process of an inquest and investigation thereafter.

Although there have obviously been shortcomings in this investigation, which the Met has admitted and on which it has expressed a profound desire to improve, it is not my experience that the Metropolitan police is institutionally homophobic. Obviously, however, the commissioner and the Mayor have commissioned Baroness Casey to look at the culture of the Metropolitan police in all its aspects following the awful killing of Sarah Everard. I understand that her work will include examining whether prejudice such as the right hon. Lady outlined exists in the force. It is definitely the case, as I think is recognised by City Hall and Metropolitan police leadership, that there is a job of work to be done to rebuild trust between that organisation and the people it serves in all their great tapestry in the capital that I had the honour to serve for eight years.

On the Independent Office for Police Conduct, as I said, it is considering whether to reopen, in full or in part, the investigations that it undertook in the light of any new evidence that may be presented as part of the inquest. As the right hon. Lady will know, there were recently reforms to the IOPC when it replaced the Independent Police Complaints Commission and there was a change in regulations last year to try to improve its performance. I have confidence in it as an organisation to try to get to the bottom of these often difficult and complicated issues. As I say, however, until we see whether it is going to reopen the investigations, I cannot comment on that further.

My reading of the apologies from senior Met officers is that they are very heartfelt—from Helen Ball, whom I know well and who is an officer of great commitment, and from Stuart Cundy, who leads on homicide for the National Police Chiefs’ Council across the country—and they recognise that there were serious failures in this case. I know that they are all committed to facing those failures and improving in future.

All right-thinking Members of the House support our police and understand that they do a tremendous job, often in difficult circumstances, but cases such as this leave us in an awful position because as the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) outlined, there are some incredibly difficult questions to be answered. Does the Minister agree that police up and down the country need to be held to the highest standards, whether on homophobia or any other issue? We need to tackle and root out any prejudice and ensure that this sort of case can never be allowed to happen again.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Although it is possible for us to hold inquiries, make structural changes and urge the organisations to examine their internal cultures, in the end, it is a matter of leadership and the signal that is sent by senior police officers about how junior officers should comport themselves and the confidence that officers should have internally to call out bad behaviour, whether that is homophobia, racism, sexism, misogyny or whatever it might be.

The inquiries that are under way, the work that the National Police Chiefs’ Council is doing, and the inquiries within the Metropolitan police, will put us in a better place to face those unpleasant phenomena within the organisations. My hon. Friend is right to point out that every day, up and down the land, thousands of police officers do remarkable things and we should never forget that.

It is good to be back, if sadly on such a difficult issue. All our hearts will be with the family and friends of Anthony Walgate, Gabriel Kovari, Daniel Whitworth and Jack Taylor, because these were vile murders by a man who targeted young gay men. They were all found close to each other and close to his house. It is incomprehensible that the dots were not joined.

The jurors’ verdict that fundamental failings in the police investigation probably contributed to three deaths is extremely serious. Three young men might otherwise have been alive today. The jurors heard damning evidence about lack of basic checks, lack of professional curiosity, serious workforce pressures, long delays on digital forensics and serious failures in leadership. Crucially, the victims’ families have raised serious concerns about homophobia blighting the investigation and the way that they as partners and relatives were treated, though the jurors were directed not to consider that.

Rightly, the Met has recognised failings and is making changes. We await the coroner’s prevention of future deaths report. Given the seriousness of the issue, however, does the Minister not agree that a further independent inquiry will be required to get to the truth of how and why it was possible for things to go so badly wrong? Does he accept that the families need answers, which they do not have right now, on how far homophobia, prejudice or unconscious bias affected the investigation?

The Home Office response is too weak, given the seriousness of the case. The Minister and the Home Secretary have a responsibility to be relentless in pursuit of the truth to ensure that the families get the answers that they need and deserve. The IOPC will look at individuals, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services at homicide procedures and Louise Casey at the Met culture, but none of them is addressing the full scale of what went wrong in this case—whether homophobia was involved, and what changes are needed not just in the Met but in police forces across the country to make sure that this can never happen again. May I please urge the Minister to take another look at this case?

Obviously I recognise the deep concern about these investigations, not least in regard to—the right hon. Lady, whom I welcome to her new position, drew attention to this—the seemingly incomprehensible nature of the dots not being drawn together. I have to say that that has often been a problem not just for the Metropolitan police but for other police forces, when seemingly obvious patterns of behaviour have failed to be linked together in other types of crime. We saw it previously in the Met in the case of John Worboys, a serial rapist whose pattern of offending was never pieced together. However, I am reassured that they have made significant changes structurally, aligning their homicide teams with their basic borough command units so that there can be better co-ordination, and making sure that there is better analysis of patterns of offending to establish at an early stage whether there are a linked series of crimes.

As for the right hon. Lady’s primary question about the independent inquiry, as I have said, the Deputy Mayor has commissioned Her Majesty’s inspectorate to look at the investigative practices, while the Met have themselves commissioned Dame Louise Casey to look at their culture internally and the IOPC is considering whether to reopen any investigations. In the light of those three steps, we will obviously have to keep the situation under review, but for the moment we want to see how they conclude.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. Everyone is rightly horrified at the deaths of these young men. Reports of alleged institutional homophobia in the Metropolitan police must be taken seriously, so can my right hon. Friend reassure the gay community of London that he will support every effort to root it out?

I certainly can give that reassurance, and we will stand four-square with the commissioner herself as she seeks to do exactly that. The Met have not stood still in seeking to address this issue. I understand that they have a new LGBTQ organisational improvement group, and that there is a network of 125 volunteer advisers across the whole of the Met. Officers who are posted to particular boroughs or areas are now being trained and briefed much more coherently about the nature of the community with whom they are dealing, including LGBTQ members of that community. They are making big strides. Nevertheless, there will be lessons to be learned, particularly from Louise Casey’s review, and we look forward to seeing its conclusions.

My constituent Sarah Sak, Anthony’s mother, was on holiday in Turkey when the Metropolitan police contacted her to say that her son had been found dead. From that very second, when speaking to me, Sarah has accused the Met of prejudice and throughout all these proceedings she has constantly made the point that there was discrimination. Sadly, the coroner chose not to look at that. I make no criticism of the coroner, but when I spoke to Sarah last night, she asked me, “What can the Home Secretary do to persuade me that this can never, ever happen again?”

Of course I offer my profound condolences to Sarah. As a father myself, I cannot imagine ever having to go through that kind of experience: it must have been terrible. I am aware, in particular, that there were failings in the posture of the family liaison officers who dealt with some of the bereaved, and that is also being addressed by the Metropolitan police.

Those who know Baroness Casey will know that she will be unrelenting and forensic in her examination of the culture of the Metropolitan police. I have confidence in her to do a good job in examining the overall culture in the Met, and an examination of this issue will be part of that. Once she has concluded her examination, we shall be able to draw some lessons about the future.

There is always a danger that an entire institution will be damaged by the failures of a few. However, what action will be taken against officers who are found guilty of such an abysmal failure of investigation and drive? If action is not taken, does that not create a narrative that there is something wrong with the institution as a whole?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that people need to have confidence not just in the force as a whole but in individual officers. He may know that 17 officers were originally investigated by the IOPC. That investigation concluded some time ago, but I understand the IOPC is considering whether to reopen it, in full or in part, in the light of the evidence from the inquest.

My Vauxhall constituency is home to one of the largest LGBT communities in the country, and I share my constituents’ feelings about the Met’s response to these horrific murders. How can my LGBT constituents trust the Met when they failed to link the three deaths that were so close together? How can my LGBT constituents trust the Met when they refused to rule out some of the horrific homophobic presumptions about these young gay men? How can my LGBT constituents trust the Met when, 12 months after the first murders, they ignored the pleas from family members, friends and partners?

The Minister says he is reassured by the Met but, respectfully, I do not think my constituents are reassured this afternoon. As with some of my black and minority ethnic constituents and some of my female constituents, my constituents and communities seem to have experienced a catalogue of failures from the Met police. Will he please show the leadership that he says is needed and call for a full public investigation to get to the bottom of this?

I understand the hon. Lady’s anger and frustration, which many of us feel. However, as I said, I am reassured that the Met are taking the three steps required to learn the lessons of this issue. First, they acknowledge that something went wrong and have apologised. Secondly, they are being transparent about that and about what needs to change. And thirdly, they are seeking independent advice on their internal processes and internal culture to make sure change happens and sticks. Although I can understand the doubts that many in the LGBTQ+ community may have about the Metropolitan police today, I hope this means that, over the months and years to come, the Met can rebuild the trust that is needed.

The long-term partner of one of the murder victims was not allowed by the police to read the forged suicide note, which was of course written by the murderer, because he was not considered to be next of kin. We left that most appalling attitude behind in the 1980s. Given this is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) says, the latest in a catalogue of abysmal failures by the Metropolitan police that indicates a rotten culture at the Met’s heart, why did the Home Secretary recently extend the commissioner’s tenure by two years?

Obviously the Home Secretary, along with the Mayor of London, felt the current commissioner is the right person to do the job for the next two years. Of course these awful events happened when she was not in the employ of the Metropolitan police. However, the right hon. Gentleman makes a strong point about the culture of the Metropolitan police, and importantly that is something the leadership has acknowledged, hence the appointment of Dame Louise Casey.

An Ipsos MORI poll suggests that trust in the police has fallen from 76% to 63%, especially among marginalised groups and the LGBTQ+ community. Will the Minister agree to the Liberal Democrat call for mandatory, UK-wide awareness training for the police on prejudice and unconscious bias?

The police have extensive training on many of these issues. Although I acknowledge that trust and confidence in the police have taken a battering over the past few months, it is worth remembering that the people who are most profoundly upset by this are the thousands of police officers, of all types, across the country who want their profession and vocation to be held in high esteem by the people they serve, not least because that was the primary motivation for their joining.

The police service in this country is changing very significantly, not least because, as the hon. Lady will know, we are recruiting a new generation of police officers who will massively expand capacity and bring a new mindset into the organisation. This presents an enormous opportunity to diversify the police and to see the kind of cultural shift that, to be fair, has been ongoing for the past 20 years.

Something as appalling as this deserves more than to be tacked on to an existing inquiry. It surely requires a public inquiry, as other colleagues have called for, to look at the totality and horror of this event.

The Minister mentioned the idea of specialist officers within the force. I understand the need for them and can see some value in the idea, but is there not a greater problem in the general attitudes throughout the force? The danger of having specialist officers is that things get shoved on to them and ignored by everybody else. What we need is a change of culture as a whole right across the Metropolitan police force.

Obviously there is a strong role for specialist officers in particular aspects of investigation or in investigations that have particular characteristics. The key thing is that those officers work hand in glove with other officers, particularly those based in a borough, who very often are able to piece together the investigation in a way that a specialist officer is not. One of the improvements the Metropolitan police are putting in place is better training for frontline response officers to make sure that they are able to follow an investigation from start to finish, basically, much more and that only the most serious of crimes are handed off to the specialists, in a way that is co-ordinated. Therefore, the chain in intelligence and the appreciation of the full picture, if you like, of what has happened in a related set of offences will not be lost to the organisation.

It has been a terribly sad few days. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) said, we did not expect in this day and age for a partner of a gay man to be treated in this way. Although progress has been made, it can still be extremely difficult for members of the LGBT+ community to speak confidently about partners or relationships. What protocols has the Minister put in place since these tragic events, not just in the Met but across all police forces, to ensure that friends, partners and families of those in the LGBT community are treated effectively and sensitively in any form of investigation? What will he do to ensure that those protocols are implemented effectively, and are not just a piece of paper?

As I hope the hon. Lady knows, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is currently in the other place and is due to return to us in the new year, will place in law the provision of a police covenant, one of the key themes of which is family support and welfare. As part of our engagement to build that picture, I was very pleased to participate with a number of groups on different aspects of policing. As I say, there is a great tapestry these days; there is not just a monoculture in British policing. I spoke to those who are in an LGBT+ relationship, a key group, to understand the particular relationship they have with policing and the particular support they may need for the future. I hope that, as the covenant lands, we will be able to flesh out more widely what that support looks like, and that she will be able to support us in doing so.

The response from the Government smacks of the same old, same old response of shutting down shop when the police are criticised in this way. The IOPC investigated 17 officers involved in the investigation and only two were disciplined, despite the scale of the failures in the investigation. Now we hear that the IOPC has been invited back to have another go. That really is not good enough. What is needed is a fully independent inquiry. It is time the Government recognised that that is the only response that is acceptable.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s frustration, but I am sure he will understand that it is extremely important that the IOPC relies on the “I” and that it is the Independent Office for Police Conduct. It therefore cannot be ordered by Ministers or anyone else to investigate or not investigate. I am given to understand that in this case, in the light of the evidence that has come through, it is considering whether to reopen the investigation. It would not be proper for me to influence its decision either way, in the same way that it is not for me to order the police to investigate any individual or otherwise. We should wait and see what the IOPC has to say and wait for the other inquiries commissioned by City Hall and by the Met, and see what the picture looks like after that.

Just to finish, Mr Speaker, the Government take this incident extremely seriously and we want to do everything we can to make sure that it does not happen again.

That seems to have been aimed at me, but I just say that I granted an urgent question because there was no statement.

And well done you, Mr Speaker.

The Minister has said repeatedly that he has reassured himself, but he has not reassured me—if anything, quite the opposite. He keeps referring to this as a “tragedy”, but it is not a tragedy; it is a double-layered gay hate crime. I wish he would actually use those words. It has been a double-layered gay hate crime. First there were the original murders, and then there was the refusal to investigate them, which in itself is a gay hate crime. It is about time we took this seriously, not least because homophobic hate crimes in the past three years have risen to 1,833 a month. That is why a lot of gay men in this country are beginning to feel frightened. The Government have got to do something. Get on with it!

First of all, my apologies, Mr Speaker. I was not aiming any particular comment at you. It is just that the microphone went off as I was finishing.

I acknowledge the terrible nature of this crime, and I acknowledge the prejudiced, homophobic nature of it—[Interruption.] Yes, I do; of course I do. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we are doing enormous amounts of work on violence and murder in all their forms across the whole country. We have set murder specifically—irrespective of the nature of the murder—as one of our national priorities to push it down. Obviously this murder is particularly heinous and unpleasant, not least because of the botched investigation that took place around it. What I am saying to Opposition Members is that we are determined to help the police to learn the lessons from this. We will do what we can to help them to do so, and we will push them to do so. At the moment, we do not believe that a full public inquiry is the way to do that, not least because of the time required, but there are some extremely useful and assertive investigations ongoing, independently, around this case that give us cause to believe that there will be change in the future. If there is not, we can come back to it, but I honestly hope that nobody is implying that either I or the Government do not take these kinds of crimes extremely seriously. We absolutely do. Every single murder that happens in this country, no matter the complexion or the demographic of the victim, is of extreme importance to us and to me personally.

Homophobia is a lived reality for thousands of gay people up and down the country every single day. These avoidable murders of gay young men will be broadcast around the country, and LGBT people will be looking at the Minister’s response and saying, “They do not value my life because I am gay.” A full public independent inquiry will give LGBT people the reassurance that something will be done to stop this ever happening again. Will the Minister reconsider his refusal to have that independent inquiry?

I have to confess that I object to this characterisation that I do not care or that we do not care about these individuals. It is completely unfair and completely untrue, not least to those members of the Government who happen to be of that description themselves—[Interruption.] No, many of us have worked on these issues addressing all sorts of communities, whether it is domestic murders or murders in minority communities. The murders of all sorts of people are profoundly important to us. That is why we have set murder as a national priority. If it is of interest to the House, last week I got the police chiefs of the seven biggest contributors to the murder total in this country around a table to talk about how we can further drive murders of all types down. This is a particularly unpleasant murder—[Interruption.] I understand the alarm and distress it will have caused across the country. We need to learn the lessons from it and we are determined to do so.

The Minister’s response to the urgent question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge), which should have been a statement from the Home Secretary, is extremely disappointing. I have dealt with the Met for more than 30 years, as a lawyer and as a politician, and I can remember few cases as serious as this, both because of the callous incompetence of the investigation and because of the consequences in the loss of lives of those young men.

All I have heard from the Minister today, and from the senior members of the Met—London MPs are just about to go to talk to them—are platitudes. I have heard platitudes specifically because they will not address the homophobic nature of these murders. That is not being addressed because it will not be included in the inquiry, and the Minister will not establish a full inquiry. He needs to order that now. A BBC series on this issue is starting on 3 January; it is not going to go away. He is entitled to his view that the Met is not institutionally homophobic—I would take a different view—but he is not entitled not to investigate that and to sweep this issue under the carpet.

First, it is not the case that this matter is not being investigated further. As I have outlined several times, a number of lines of inquiry are being pursued, both about the Met’s investigation generally and its culture more specifically, and the IOPC may or may not reopen the investigation into the officers. So it is not the case that this has reached some kind of dead end, as some Opposition Members seem to be implying. It is simply not true to say that we are not bending every sinew to try to identify those who are likely to murder, in all different circumstances, whether domestic or through drugs—whatever the circumstances are. As I say, just last week I sat the seven biggest forces down and we had a three-hour session to look at what more work we could do to identify those who are likely to go on to commit such crimes: what their precursor behaviour is; what indications there are in their background; what data pools we could put together, whether that is their background offending or intelligence about them, that would give us clues towards what they were likely to do and allow us to intervene before. That enormous project of work has been under way for two years, and I hope and believe it will drive down murder numbers in the next few years to come. It is very unfair to accuse us of not taking these murders extremely seriously—that is exactly what we are doing and we are determined to make sure that they do not happen again.

We have seen the Daniel Morgan, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman cases, the Sarah Everard case and then the resulting vigil, the fiasco at Wembley and now this shocking set of gay murders—the Minister has not said that word.

I do not think the Minister has said it. In any case, the list of bunglings under this Metropolitan Police Commissioner this year alone seems endless, and they date back to 2005, with the shoot-to-kill Jean Charles de Menezes operation. May I ask that as well as the inspection that the Minister mentions, he undertakes a full statutory inquiry, with teeth, into the entire Met police and, although it may sound unsisterly to say so, its leadership? That should be a priority for whoever steps into the shoes of my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) as Chair of the Committee on Wednesday.

For the avoidance of doubt, let me say that these were very obviously horrific gay murders, targeted against men because they were gay and driven by who knows what—homophobia or some kind of depraved sexual practice; I do not know. Some monster perpetrated these awful acts against these poor gay men. I am happy to say, without reservation, that obviously they need to be investigated and we need to get to the bottom of this. As I have explained, there are inquiries ongoing into the culture of the Metropolitan police, and I would like to see how they land before we seek to duplicate them by some other means.

We should not, ever, underestimate the very real concerns of the LGBTQ+ communities across this country about these dreadful failings by the Met police. Is the Minister satisfied that police forces across the country, not just the Met, have sufficient time, resources and leadership to ensure that the complete breakdown of oversight described by the jury in this hearing cannot ever happen again?

As I said, much of my work over the past two years has been devoted to bringing the focus of the whole of UK policing and, in particular, its leadership on to murder as a specific issue. That means improving processes, improving forensics, improving their investigation techniques and improving their prior identification. Crucially, it means improving the leadership, and that is what I was doing last Thursday with the police chiefs from across the country.

I thank the Minister for his response to the questions. Having read some of the details of this case in the news recently, I was, like others in this Chamber, very shocked. I am anxious to understand why normal procedures do not seem to have been followed. Can the Minister affirm that, in every case, regardless of the crime and the motivation, the inquiry and the evidence procedure is the same, and that there are no levels of importance in the allocation of cases in any of our police forces in the United Kingdom?

That is definitely the consistency that we seek, but there is a category of deaths that have thus far needed some focus, which is unexplained deaths. For example, the circumstances of this case are that these deaths were originally classified as unexplained or non-suspicious. Since then, I understand that the Metropolitan police have put in a step-by-step guide for officers to make sure that, in contemplating these deaths, no stone goes unturned in trying to connect them, and that they are forensic and curious about whether they could be linked. In the very obvious way that many of us have read about in the papers, these murders were in fact linked, whether by geography or by causation. I hope that that will improve the investigation of the cases and that we will see that consistency that the hon. Gentleman seeks across the whole country.