§ Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. E. Wakefield.]
§ 10.41 p.m.
§ Sir David Robertson (Caithness and Sutherland)
I desire to raise the case of John Waters, a boy of 15, who was brutally assaulted by two police constables in Thurso, a town in my constituency, on 7th December 1957. I learned of this case when I was in Thurso on 1st May last when the father, a working chap, was brought to me by my constituency association.
I was rather reluctant to take up the case. Some time had elapsed since the assault had taken place. I was impressed by his earnestness and asked him to put the facts in writing and to send me a list of the witnesses. I did not promise to take up the case; I promised to investigate it. When I received his letter, his story of the events was something like this. The boy had been to a cinema which he left about 11 o'clock at night and went to the Cardosi's, a well-conducted café in Thurso, where there were a number of other fellows with whom he was friendly.
350 Two police constables, without being called into the café, entered it, presumably on duty, P.C. Gunn and P.C. Harper. There was some talk between the boys and the constables and one of the constables went up and took young John Waters under his control. The other policeman joined him and they took Waters outside. I understand they warned him to watch his behaviour or he would get into trouble. His behaviour, as far as I know, was impeccable; there was nothing wrong with it at all.
When he got back into the café his companions said, "Your coat is torn". The boy ran after the policemen and protested, presumably, but they just took him into their control again and marched him along Traill Street, the principal street and, when they got to an alleyway, took him down the alleyway. What happened there was not seen by anybody except John Waters, the boy. He stated that he remembers nothing after the first savage blow, which knocked him on his back.
Seventeen witnesses have testified in writing to me that most of them saw the boy when he was taken under the control of the constables and that they saw him being led along the main street and disappearing into the alley. They saw the two constables come out, and then some of the other boys ran in and found this boy in the care of a Mrs. McPhee, who had heard the racket, had come out and had found him lying in the alleyway. She took him into her home and had him washed and bathed, and he was taken to the doctor.
The doctor, Dr. Fell, realised that there would be trouble about this case and he made more than ordinary notes. I will tell the House what he said. He gave this statement to the Unionist organisation. Dr. Fell said that he thought some action would be taken so he took more elaborate notes than is usual. He states that the boy was brought to himwith upper lip swollen on the right side, with abrasion of the mucus membrane. His eyes were bloodshot and the lids swollen and he was very tender in the front of the right ear. He was shaking very badly. The left shoulder of his jacket was torn.He saw the boy again on the 10th and 14th, when he was still in a nervous condition. He brought the boy into the world and thinks he is a very nice lad.
351 I took the precaution of obtaining references for the boy from his head-master, Mr. Grant, of Miller Academy, from the captain of the Boys' Brigade Company to which he belongs, and from his employer. I have never seen better references as to the conduct and behaviour of a boy. They are much better than would ever have been given me when I was his age.
At that stage I received the letter from the boy's father and I raised the case with the Secretary of State for Scotland. I wanted to find out why a trial had not taken place. In the father's statement, made to me in writing, he said that on the night of the assault he took his boy to the Thurso police station and made a charge of assault against the police, which was accepted by the inspector on duty. He expected that it would be considered summarily on the following day. It was not. When he inquired he was told that he would have to go to Wick, the county town. He went there some days later to see the Fiscal, and the Fiscal stated that he had not yet received the police report. This was rather extraordinary, because from seven to ten days had elapsed.
He heard nothing further, and a week or so later he again went to Wick, when the Fiscal told him that there was to be no case. He gave no reason except that that had been decided by the authorities, whoever the authorities were. I have since learned that the authorities are Crown Counsel in Edinburgh. The Procurator-Fiscal, who is the agent of the Lord Advocate in Thurso, had made the investigation and had decided to send the facts of the case to Crown Counsel, and they had decided that there was no case.
That was the case that was presented to me, and I presented it to the Secretary of State for Scotland. He did not reply to me, but about four weeks later I received a letter from my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate stating that he had gone into the matter and was of the same opinion as Crown Counsel. There was to be no trial, which seemed to me extraordinary. It seemed extraordinary that a boy of this age, or any citizen for that matter, could be assaulted by the police and no case brought against the police. I had always 352 believed that, in this country of ours, a trial automatically followed.
I made further inquiries. I was dissatisfied with the Lord Advocate's answer, and I put down a Question to him. After I had done that, I was asked by the Solicitor-General for Scotland if I would postpone it until they had made further investigations about the evidence I had submitted. I at once agreed to a postponement of fourteen days in order to give them time, but when the Lord Advocate answered I got a most unsatisfactory reply.
He did not challenge any of the statements that I had put in my Question—which was rather a long one—but simply stated that he was waiting on the evidence of one witness. The name of that witness has never been disclosed but I believe that she is a Mrs. Banks, who was the employer of the boy's mother. She was said to be a very material witness on the night, or shortly after the incident, when she and her husband went to the Waters' home, and stayed there for several hours bringing the utmost pressure on the father to withdraw the case against the police. One can well imagine the situation, when the Banks were so interested. I do not know whether either of the policemen is related to them, but the utmost pressure was brought to bear on the Waters to withdraw the case.
In his reply, the Lord Advocate stated that this lady was unwell; that she had been in a mental institution in Inverness during the period between the assault and the time of which I now speak. But she never was, in fact, a material witness. She was never a witness who saw the boy in the control and custody of the police, being taken along Main Street, nor was she there when the police came out. She was there simply after the event. It seemed to me then, and I said so in a supplementary question, that she was not a material witness, and that her illness was no reason for further delay in denying a trial of this case.
Mr. Speaker tried very hard to allow me to raise the matter on the Adjournment just before we rose for the Summer Recess. Unfortunately, I had to go to my constituency, and was unable to get back here in time. Then there was the long wait of the Summer Recess, but as soon as it was possible to get an Oral 353 Answer I again put down a Question, and again got the same unsatisfactory reply—no trial.
I have never attempted to judge this case myself. I have deliberately stood back, relying on the written evidence given to me by seventeen witnesses, all of whom are in complete accord as to what happened. They admit that nobody saw the actual blows struck, but from the condition of the boy himself they are fully convinced that he was beaten up by the police.
Any number of people in my constituency—whom I do not know—have stopped me in the street—people of all kinds—and have asked, "Are they beating you?" By "they," they mean the Law Officers and the Secretary of State. I have been asked if they are beating me in doing what I know to be my duty, and I have had to answer that the delays are long, that the machinery of Parliament works slowly. I have told them that I have done by best, and they have believed that to be so.
I am not attempting to say that I do not believe the police to be guilty—I could not think otherwise—but in all this long correspondence and Question and Answer, neither the Lord Advocate nor the Secretary of State has said anything other than that there is no case. There must be a case. I am convinced that something is being kept from me, and from the House, and I wonder if it is something that cannot be disclosed without showing that there has been a covering up of some kind or other.
How can I think otherwise? I have given the Lord Advocate all possible information, yet I have stood back. I have never attempted to go to the father or to the witnesses, to ask questions, or to go to the cafe people. I have simply given the evidence. I should be failing in my duty if I did not press this case tonight. In order to avoid any misunderstanding in anyone's mind, I may say that if there is another unsatisfactory reply tonight the parents intend to take an action in the civil court. They do not want to do it, because they have to make a claim for damages. They do not want damages. They only want the guilty men brought to trial. It shows how deeply the parents feel about this. I assure my right hon. and learned Friend 354 the Lord Advocate that my constituents feel as I do.
I realise that the police must have protection against indiscriminate attacks on them and I fully support that, but this was a boy of 15 who was badly beaten up by a powerful constable and left lying in an alleyway. First, from the Procurator-Fiscal, then Crown Counsel and then the Lord Advocate—at least three times—no answer was given. This is treating the House of Commons with contempt. The House is entitled to know. This could happen to any hon. Member, but when it happens the least we have a right to ask is that there is a trial. That is all I am asking for tonight.
§ 10.56 p.m.
§ The Lord Advocate (Mr. W. R. Milligan)
I could have wished that my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Sir D. Robertson) had not started his speech with what appeared to me to be a definite statement. He opened by saying that a boy of 15 years was brutally assaulted by the police and he said much the same thing at the end of his speech. I would rather he had said to the House that a boy of 15 years had said that he was brutally assaulted by the police.
My hon. Friend has referred to certain evidence. I, also, am in possession of certain evidence. When the case was originally reported to the Procurator—Fiscal, the Procurator-Fiscal quite rightly—my hon. Friend has referred to this reported it to the Crown Office as it involved a charge of assault against the police and a charge of this nature is always particularly carefully investigated.
After considering the evidence, Crown Counsel decided that criminal proceedings would not be justified. I hope the House will note how I phrase that. At a later date, my hon. Friend, as he has told us tonight, asked me to reconsider this decision. He also submitted a number of statements which had been taken from certain witnesses. Having given my hon. Friend's representations and the statements which he sent the fullest consideration, I informed him that I was still of the view that criminal proceedings would not, in the circumstances as known to Crown Counsel and to myself, be justified.
355 My hon. Friend has sought to question me on my decision and has tried to persuade me to give reasons for it.
§ The Lord Advocate
The House will appreciate that if I could give specific reasons for the decision which I have taken in this matter, I could only do so by referring to the statements that were in the possession of the Crown authorities, and it would be a most unsatisfactory operation that these witnesses' statements should be referred to without any opportunity of cross-examination of the witnesses.
The objections to reasons being given by a prosecutor for his decision can, perhaps, be more clearly appreciated by taking the converse case, assuming that criminal proceedings are taken and the accused is acquitted. It may be because certain of the Crown witnesses have failed to repeat in court the statements which they made to the Crown authorities prior to action being taken. Could it be seriously suggested that the Lord Advocate of the day should be asked in this House, "Why did you take these criminal proceedings? What was your justification for it?". If he gave his reasons in that case, the only way he could do so would be by coming to this House with the statements which he had had prior to the trial and reading them out to the House. That, I am sure, the House would think would be extremely unfair to the acquitted man. All that would happen would be that there would be doubt cast upon his acquittal.
It is for these reasons that the grounds upon which a decision of this kind is taken have never, I think, been given to the House. A decision in regard to criminal proceedings has been, and I think must always be, a pure matter of discretion. That matter was considered in the House as long ago as 1951 when the Attorney-General of the day, Sir Hartley Shawcross as he then was, made specific reference in reply to the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, North-East (Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas) that it must in every case be a question of discretion, and that criminal proceedings are not automatic merely because there may be adequate, although perhaps narrow, evidence. In these circumstances, 356 I regret to have to inform the hon. Member not only that I adhere to my previous decision, but that I cannot give him any further information than I have already given.
§ 11.1 p.m.
§ Mr. Denis Howell (Birmingham, All Saints)
By a pure accident I find myself in the Chamber tonight listening to this unfortunate chronicle of events, and I speak as one jealous of the good name of the police force. For many years I served on the Watch Committee in Birmingham, and no hon. Member has a higher regard for the broad mass of the police than I.
I am sure that every chief constable that I have met, faced with the prima facie evidence supplied by the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Sir D. Robertson), would be most anxious to have the fullest inquiry made into it. The reply to a charge of such gravity given tonight by the Lord Advocate on behalf of the Government is the most disgraceful that I have heard since I have been in the House. The safety of the subject in this country is paramount.
I am not aware of Scottish law and I do not know precisely how the police affairs in Scotland are governed, but I know that in England there would be three courses open in a case such as has been outlined by the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland. First, there could be the prosecution of the police officers concerned. To bring such a prosecution, as the Lord Advocate well knows, all that is necessary is that there must be a prima facie case. For any lawyer, whether he be a Scottish Minister or anyone else, to consider the evidence which we have heard and then to say that there is no prima facie case places him, in my opinion, in the category of a nitwit.
There is obviously a prima facie case here. Whatever other evidence there may be to support the defence, there is evidence which could very properly be put before the court to be considered on the balance of probability. That is one line. Secondly, there is the course of civil proceedings. I think that in this case the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland and the relatives are to be commended for not quickly taking civil proceedings which many people often do. I 357 am quite sure that, in view of the ridiculous, indeed the impossible, reply to which we have just listened those concerned will now have no alternative but to take civil proceedings and try to extract the maximum damages from the police. I hope that the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland and his constituents will do that.
The third course, which may not be on all fours with Scottish practice, although I am sure that there must be some parallel course open in Scotland, is the holding of a judicial inquiry by the police authorities. I have sat on many such inquiries in Birmingham dealing with allegations such as we have heard tonight, and I am happy to say that we have usually been able to acquit the police of the charges alleged against them. My experience has always been that the Chief Constable was most anxious to have the fullest possible investigation of these matters, to preserve the good name of his force and of the individual members of it.
There must be some parallel to that in Scotland. What sort of judicial inquiry could be held there, and why has none 358 been held? Why has the hon. Member been treated in this shameful manner, and why, indeed, has the House been treated in this disgraceful manner?
As one who has listened to this debate without knowing anything about the case, I protest at the treatment that has been meted out by the Government spokesman and I suggest that there is obviously a prima facie case—whatever other evidence the Minister has in his possession—that this matter should be fully investigated. One cannot escape the conclusion that there is a great covering up going on that is a disgrace to the good name of government in this country and to the good name of the law of this land.
I therefore strongly object to the treatment we have had from the Minister tonight. I ask him to give us far more reasons than are contained in the pontifical statement that he made from the Box, and to see that common sense is applied to the matter by his Department.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes past Eleven o'clock.