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Metropolitan Police: Stephen Port Murders Inquest

Volume 817: debated on Tuesday 14 December 2021

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 13 December.

“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 that 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 the 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 & 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.”

My Lords, this an incredibly serious inquiry that we are discussing in this Urgent Question. Four men were vilely murdered by a man who targeted young, gay men. They were failed by the police and the system. The jurors’ verdict that fundamental failings in the police investigation probably contributed to three deaths is serious in itself, but equally, the families and partners have raised concerns about homophobia blighting the investigation and the way they were treated. They have accused the Metropolitan Police of being prejudiced and institutionally homophobic.

Given how serious this is, is there not a need for an independent inquiry which, unlike the other inquiries already announced, including that of the noble Baroness, Lady Casey, will look specifically at whether homophobia was involved in this investigation, and lessons learned for the police not only in London but, crucially, across the country, rather than trying to keep it under review, as the policing Minister said in the other place just yesterday? We cannot change the past, but we must do all we can to ensure it does not happen again. The victims of this horrific crime need to at least know that.

I join the noble Lord in lamenting the deaths of Anthony Walgate, Gabriel Kovari, Daniel Whitworth, and Jack Taylor, three of whom might not have died. The inquest’s conclusions provide very serious lessons for policing to consider and act upon. It is also right that independent and professional bodies have the opportunity to review the case. HMICFRS has been asked to conduct an inspection into the standard of the Metropolitan Police Service’s investigations. The IOPC will also assess whether to reopen, either in full or in part, its investigation.

I understand that the coroner ruled that on the basis of the evidence, it would not have been possible for a conclusion to be reached on whether homophobia was an overriding factor in mistakes made, but the MPS has already announced an independent review, headed by the noble Baroness, Lady Casey of Blackstock, into its culture. I will, of course, take a very close interest in her findings and any recommendations she makes.

My Lords, I speak as a gay former senior police officer whose former partner died, as these men died, of the drug GHB. There is an expectation that the Commissioner will front press briefings when the reputation of the Metropolitan Police is in jeopardy, as she did over the death of Sarah Everard and the photographing of murdered sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry. When the jury in this case concluded that the deaths of three young gay men could have been prevented had the police done their job properly, she was nowhere to be seen. Can the Minister explain why? Did the Commissioner think this was not important enough? Is this further evidence of institutional homophobia? There may be an innocent explanation, but I hope the Minister understands how this looks.

In response to the noble Lord’s question about why the Commissioner was not publicly fronting any statements or comments, one thing we can say is that attitudes in the police have changed since the time of those young men’s murders, which is not to diminish this in any way. The Commissioner is, of course, a member of the LGBT community. I do not know the answer. I do not think it diminishes in any way the horror and the feelings of the Metropolitan Police about what has happened. I will say that, since the time of those murders, diversity within the police has improved—it has a long way to go, but it has improved—and there is more training in place to improve that diversity and the culture in which the police operate.

My Lords, we all take extremely seriously the findings of this inquest, but could the noble Baroness tell us what steps are in place within the Metropolitan Police, or any other police service in the country, to ensure that when there are adverse findings, as there were in the case of this inquest, or when there are issues raised through reviews by the inspectorate or, indeed, by an independent review, whether commissioned by the police themselves or by the Government, the lessons from those reviews are taken on board, acted upon and continue to be acted upon?

The noble Lord makes a very good point. We can pay lip service to inquiries and investigations or we can actually try to make sure that there is a shift in the way that we operate. I know the Metropolitan Police is committed to a series of actions, including providing further training to officers, which is clearly needed. With more training and support, response team officers now investigate all but the most serious and complex crimes and victims are not passed between different units, and the quality of each investigation is improving. The College of Policing is regularly reviewing the training offered to police forces, and the NPCC is delivering a series of programmes to support forces in securing the trust of the public. The public need to have more faith in the police and that trust desperately needs rebuilding, certainly in the light of recent events such as the terrible murder of Sarah Everard. The noble Lord will probably know that the NPCC appointed Maggie Blyth as the national police lead for violence against women and girls, and a police plan of action on inclusion and race is also being led by the NPCC. Some things have been done, but there is a long way to go.

Sitting suspended.