HC Deb 17 January 1983 vol 35 cc22-30 3.32 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. William Whitelaw)

On the evening of Friday 14 January, officers of the Metropolitan Police, charged with the pursuit and recapture of an escaped suspect, shot and seriously injured Mr. Stephen Waldorf. The Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis has already made it clear that this shooting arose from mistaken identity and has expressed his deep regret at what occurred. I am sure that the House will agree with me that this was a most serious, grave and disturbing incident. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Nothing like it must happen again. I am equally sure that the House will wish to join me in expressing our deep sympathy to Mr. Waldorf and his family and our hope for his rapid and complete recovery from his injuries.

The House will expect a full investigation into what has occurred, and a full report on the outcome. Immediately after the incident the Commissioner set up such an inquiry. He has reported progress to me personally this morning. As the House knows, three officers have been suspended from duty. A report will go to the Director of Public Prosecutions to consider the question of criminal liability. The Commissioner told me this morning that an initial report would go to the Director tomorrow. What I have said about the possibility of criminal proceedings limits at present what I can properly say about the details of the incident itself.

The often dangerous duties of the police require them on specific occasions to carry firearms. The Metropolitan Police rules governing the issue and use of firearms are rightly stringent and explicit. I am placing the relevant extracts from the current rules in the Library of the House. The rules say: Every officer to whom a weapon is issued must be strictly warned that it is to be used only in cases of absolute necessity, for example, if he, or the person he is protecting is attacked by a person with a firearm or other deadly weapon and he cannot otherwise reasonably protect himself or give protection, he may resort to firearms as a means of defence. The rules also state that weapons are issued only to those who are authorised to have them, and under the direct and personal supervision of an officer not below the rank of inspector. The responsible chief superintendent has to be informed of their issue as soon as practicable. The rules emphasise that in planned operations where the issue of firearms is deemed necessary, the use of such weapons will be strictly controlled by the supervising officer in charge of the operation.

There will, of course, be a thorough examination of these rules in order to take account of the lessons to be learnt from Friday's incident.

Firearms were issued to Metropolitan Police officers in operations against criminals known or believed to be armed on 4,346 occasions in the first nine months of 1982. The comparable figures for the whole of 1981 and 1980 respectively were 4,983 and 5,968. Firearms were drawn from holsters in those three years on 73, 106 and 118 occasions respectively. Twenty-eight shots were fired in six incidents in 1980; six shots in two incidents in 1981, and four in three incidents last year. The figures for persons injured were two, nought, and one respectively.

That is all I can say at present to the House. The Commissioner has assured me that, whatever the outcome of any legal proceedings, he recognises that the House and the public are entitled to have available to them the full facts of this incident. I fully endorse that and will keep the House informed.

Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)

May I first offer the Opposition's sympathy to Mr. Waldorf and his family? May I then ask the Home Secretary to understand that the nation-wide concern that has been expressed about last Friday's tragedy involves not simply the shooting of one innocent man but the practices and procedures that made that tragedy possible? I therefore ask the Home Secretary to understand that the House, like the country, expects an inquiry into the regulations governing the issue of firearms to police officers and the criteria against which their use is measured. In particular, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the regulations never allow the police to open fire on targets who are not palpably offering a threat to the life and safety of either police officers or the general public?

Is it not the generally accepted practice—and, if I have correctly understood the rules that the Home Secretary has read out, the formal regulation—that before the police open fire they must be convinced of the absolute necessity to do so and must, wherever possible, warn the target of their intention to open fire?

May I ask the Home Secretary two questions that clearly underlie the inquiry that was announced during the weekend? Does not the right hon. Gentleman understand that it is wholly unsatisfactory for the investigation of this incident to be carried out by the police force which is itself being investigated, and that that is particularly so when that police force has spent much of the weekend briefing newspapers about the causes of the incident and in part attempting to justify it? Will the right hon. Gentleman, even now, consider appointing an independent individual who commands the general respect and confidence of this country to carry out what will be seen as an objective and open-minded inquiry?

Since the Home Secretary is the police authority for London, a role which he is determined to maintain despite the increasing pressure for the constitution of the police force to be changed, will he understand that the House expects not only a report into how this tragic incident came about but an understanding from him that he must tell us how he, as police authority, proposes to remedy the problems that allowed it to happen in the first place?

Mr. Whitelaw

The answer to the right hon. Gentleman's final point is that I accept the challenge and will do exactly that.

With regard to investigations, it must be right—I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree—for the legal problem to be examined in the first instance. That is why I have ensured that a preliminary report will go to the Director of Public Prosecutions as early as tomorrow morning. The right hon. Gentleman and the House will agree that that is important, quick and perfectly correct. It must, in the first instance, be for the Director of Public Prosecutions to examine the report, to get the full report and to decide if and whether legal proceedings should take place. That must be the first task. As for the next and subsequent matters, I shall bear in mind what the right hon. Gentleman said.

I have read the regulations to the House, and I believe they cover the point that the right hon. Gentleman has made—[Interruption.] I was asked a perfectly proper question about the regulations. I am entitled to say what the regulations are. If, of course, they have not been complied with, that may well be a matter for either legal prosecution or disciplinary proceedings.

I should like to make one other point to the right hon. Gentleman. It is part of firearms training that warnings should be given whenever practicable. That is also crucial.

Mr. Hattersley

May I press the right hon. Gentleman on a point on which I believe he and I have the same view—the need to re-establish and maintain confidence? He said that a report goes to the Director of Public Prosecutions, but he did not say what is generally known in the House and in the country, which is that the report is prepared by the police force into which the investigation is being made. Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that, even in terms of maintaining confidence and understanding, it would be infinitely better if the immediate investigation was made either by another police force or by an objective organisation?

Mr. Whitelaw

I understand that, in the first instance, what I have said must be correct and is what has always happened in the past, but I will consider what the right hon. Gentleman has said.

Sir Edward Gardner (South Fylde)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that two main questions must be answered by any inquiry into this appalling accident? First, is the combination of circumstances that led to this mistake ever likely to arise again? If it is, what improvements in the procedure and safeguards for the carrying and use of guns by the police will be introduced as a matter of urgency to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again?

Mr. Whitelaw

I have said, and I repeat, first, that I believe that the existing rules are stringent and explicit. I have also said that in the light of the reports that will certainly come and should be examined extremely rigorously I should expect to come before the House if it were proved that we had to revise the regulations in any way.

Mr. William Pitt (Croydon, North-West)

First, I should like to associate myself and my right hon. Friends in the Liberal Party with the remarks of sympathy expressed by the Home Secretary and by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) to the family of Mr. Stephen Waldorf. We sincerely hope that Mr. Waldorf will make a complete recovery as quickly as possible.

May I point out—I am sure that the Home Secretary will agree—that a person who was offering no—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the House that many hon. Members want to ask questions. I should like to call many of them, and I hope that those who are called will ask questions addressed to the statement.

Mr. Pitt

I beg your pardon, Mr. Speaker.

In the event of the Director of Public Prosecutions finding that there is a prima facie case against the police officers about whom the report is being submitted, will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that the double jeopardy rule will not apply and that these men will be brought to justice?

Mr. Whitelaw

In the first instance, that must be a matter for the Director of Public Prosecutions. I cannot go further than that now.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

I should like particularly to welcome the phrase in my right hon. Friend's very full statement that: Nothing like it must happen again. If that is to be achieved, is it not unsatisfactory to concentrate solely on imposing stricter controls on the use of firearms by the police? Is it not equally necessary—indeed, more necessary—to increase the effective deterrent to the carrying of firearms and their use by criminals?

Mr. Whitelaw

The answer to my hon. Friend's first point is that I accept that it is extremely important that the position of police officers when dealing with violent crime in our society today should be properly recognised. I believe that all hon. Members would accept that.

I know my hon. Friend's views on deterrents to crime. He has put them to the House on the issue of capital punishment as a deterrent. He did not convince the House on the last occasion, but, of course, that is a matter individually for every hon. Member. I maintain that the deterrents, apart from that particular issue, for those carrying firearms and weapons are already extremely stringent, and I hope that they will be strenuously enforced.

Mr. Christopher Price (Lewisham, West)

Before this incident, when was the whole issue of firearms, about which parliamentary questions have been asked, last discussed by the Home Secretary or his Ministers and the Commissioner? Will the right hon. Gentleman ask the Commissioner to conduct a thorough inquiry into the press briefing, which went on over the weekend, in which the implication was made that though the Metropolitan Police were quite happy to apologise for shooting the wrong man, they might not have done so if it had been, in their terms, the right man?

Mr. Whitelaw

The hon. Gentleman has placed a construction on the Metropolitan Police briefing, or what he says was the Metropolitan Police briefing. If that was the effect of the briefing, I would not accept it.

The question must, of course, be whether firearms were properly used in any particular case. I have discussed that on many occasions with the previous Commissioner. I have not discussed it with the present Commissioner since his appointment, but I have already received a report from him about his plans on policing for London. The issue of firearms was one matter which I was determined to raise with him, irrespective of last Friday's incident.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

After this terrible incident, will the Home Secretary and the Home Office take more seriously their role as the police authority for London? Will the Home Secretary give a categoric answer to two factual questions? First, in accordance with the rules that he has just quoted, was the inspector in charge of this operation on the spot? Secondly, are the rules that he has quoted those in the category made by the Commissioner and notified to the Home Secretary, or in the category made by the Commissioner on his own authority? Are they made by the Home Secretary or by the Commissioner?

Mr. Whitelaw

With regard to the hon. Gentleman's first point, I take the duties of the Home Secretary's job as police authority for the metropolis extremely seriously. Indeed, in view of some of the many incidents that have happened to me over the past few years, if I did not take them seriously I should be a remarkable person. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I most certainly do.

If I were to go into the details of particular officers involved in this incident I should stray into the field that I must not discuss because of prospective legal proceedings. Secondly, the rules are those set out by the Commissioner, who is operationally responsible, but, of course, as police authority I accept the rules that are put to me—just as police authorities all over the country accept the rules that are put to them. I consider them and can change them if I wish. I have not so wished on this occasion.

Mr. John Wheeler (Paddington)

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Commissioner has handled the inquiry and investigation absolutely correctly in every degree and that the correct procedure for the Commissioner is to forward a full and frank report to the Director of Public Prosecutions? Can my right hon. Friend also confirm that under English law only the minimum force should be used to effect an arrest and that violence should be used only when the life of the arresting officer or a citizen is put in jeopardy?

Mr. Whitelaw

As I should expect, my hon. Friend has correctly stated the position. I believe that the speed with which the Commissioner has acted, in particular in preparing to send an initial report to the Director of Public Prosecutions tomorrow morning—in probably an unprecedented short time—is what the House and the country would expect of him.

Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Ormskirk)

Does the Home Secretary agree that, to be effective, the police need the support and confidence of the public? Does he further agree that they will retain neither if they give the impression, as they did on Friday evening, that they are acting in an undisciplined fashion or that they are taking the law into their own hands and acting as judge, jury and executioner, particularly since the bullet that did the major damage was fired when the man was already disabled and on the ground?

Mr. Whitelaw

It would be wrong for me to comment on the hon. Gentleman's last point, because of the possibility of legal proceedings. It involves something that has been printed in the press, but which I can neither confirm nor deny. The figures that I have given for the number of times that firearms were drawn and the number of shots fired in recent years and on the minimal number of people injured show that talk of gun law is wholly inappropriate. Of course I accept that it is vital that the police retain the public's confidence. Despite all the anxiety created by the incident, I maintain that the figures justify that confidence, and we must ensure that it is maintained.

Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that no such incident has occurred in the lifetime of most hon. Members? Is my right hon. Friend further aware that we are grateful to him for the speedy way in which he has acted? When were the Metropolitan Police rules last reviewed and in what form were they made known to us?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his first remarks. The rules are constantly reviewed. All officers are instructed in them during the considerable training that they receive before they are allowed to use firearms.

Mr. Ben Ford (Bradford, North)

Is the Home Secretary aware that for many years responsible shooting organisations have urged his Department to form with them a joint standing committee to advise him on police weapon training and types of weapons to be used, among other things? Is it not now appropriate to reassure the public by setting up such a committee, so that the most expert advice is available to the right hon. Gentleman?

Mr. Whitelaw

I shall certainly consider that request.

Mr. Alan Clark (Plymouth, Sutton)

Does the Home Secretary accept that there must be some sympathy for the police in the circumstantial chain of accidents that led up to this dreadful incident? Does he agree that by no stretch of the imagination could the people in that car be termed ordinary members of the public, because at least two of them were tainted with criminality? [HON. MEMBERS: "Disgraceful. Withdraw."] Does my right hon. Friend agree that the circumstances that led up to the mistaken identity were understandable? Is there not a wider issue—that as the retributive element in the penal code diminishes and more and more criminals carry firearms, such incidents will proliferate?

Mr. Whitelaw

Having properly refused, in advance of consideration by the Director of Public Prosecutions, to comment on the incident, I should be wrong to do so now. Of course it is true that when people are using firearms and violence is created we place considerable responsibilities on our police force. That must be understood. I believe that the figures that I have quoted show that in the main they are absolutely up to those responsibilities. If mistakes are made, it is right that they should be examined and ruthlessly dealt with, as the Commissioner has promised.

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West)

In the light of this and other incidents, will the Home Secretary undertake to publish in full the guidelines controlling the use of firearms by the police, not just the relevant extracts?

Mr. Whitelaw

I promised to publish the relevant extracts of the Metropolitan Police rules, and I have done that. I shall examine the question of publishing Home Office guidelines to other police forces. I have said what I thought I should do—publish the extract from the Metropolitan Police rules, as the problem relates to the Metropolitan Police force on this occasion.

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the fact that the report is to be made to the DPP tomorrow. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if the DPP decides that there is no case for criminal prosecution, that will not clear up the matter? Whereas normally the reasons for no prosecution taking place are not given, in this instance would not the House want a report, either direct from the DPP or from some other source, so that there can be no question of the issue being whitewashed by the Commissioner and the DPP?

Mr. Whitelaw

I can give the House an absolute assurance in answer to my hon. Friend. I guarantee that everything that I have said this afternoon and every action that I shall take will involve no cover up and no whitewash, in any circumstances.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

Is not the most reprehensible aspect of Friday's incident the fact that it appears that the police went out intent, not on detaining a suspect, but on killing him?

Mr. Whitelaw

It would be quite improper for me to comment on the hon. Gentleman's assertion when legal proceedings may be pending.

Mr. Anthony Nelson (Chichester)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is only fair, on an occasion when the police have admitted a regrettable and tragic error, that we should bear in mind the majority of times when they get it absolutely right? In the light of the deep public concern and the growth in violent crime, is it not of the utmost importance that we should remind the police that they continue to enjoy public support for the proper and careful exercise of their powers?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It is true that many police successes that are well known to the House and the country go comparatively unreported. No one in public life should be surprised at that. However, there are failures. When there are failures, and serious failures, they should be ruthlessly examined. The vast majority of police officers would expect that to happen. That is what will happen in this case.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon (York)

Will the Home Secretary remind the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Clark) that not even a criminal caught in the act should be shot unless the guidelines which the right hon. Gentleman has read out have been observed and that the criminality, or near criminality, of the car's occupants has no relevance to the proceedings? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the figures that he quoted show that there is a huge disparity between the issuing of firearms and the times when it was necessary to use them? Does he agree that that shows a laxity in issuing firearms which should be considered by the proper authority? Does not the incident show that we have to re-establish proper control of the police through publicly elected police authorities?

Mr. Whitelaw

I must not comment on details of the incident. It would be proper to argue that the figures that I quoted show a marked reluctance by the police to use their weapons even when they must have them as a precaution. It is reasonable that I should point that out. The question of who controls the police in London will continue to be argued, but I do not believe that that is central to the issue that we are discussing.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call three more hon. Members from each side of the House and then to move on.

Mr. Jim Spicer (Dorset, West)

My right hon. Friend referred to the training of police in the use of small arms. Against the background of last Friday's incident does he agree that there is an urgent need to review that training and to introduce experts from outside who really know how to go about that type of operation?

Mr. Whitelaw

Police training in the use of firearms has been carried out extremely well. The police have many experts in their use. Some of the figures that I have given demonstrate how careful the police have been in the use of firearms as a result of that training. If they can learn more from outside, I am happy for that to be considered.

Mr. Norman Atkinson (Tottenham)

Will the Home Secretary reconsider the answers that he has given and agree that the conditions under which guns are issued to the police and the conditions under which they are used are utterly unsatisfactory? Does he further agree that a large proportion of the 4,000 cases to which he has referred are ones when the police break and enter the homes of innocent people during the early hours of the morning and at gun point threaten constituents to get out of bed and have their homes searched? Does he agree that that is an abuse of police powers? Is he aware that every constituency in London that is represented by a Labour Member of Parliament has provided examples of incidents where police have entered constituents' homes and that they have been reported to the Home Secretary? Is he aware that they have been searched and threatened at gun point? Does the Home Secretary agree that it is time for him to tell the House that he will have the guts to stand up to the police and say that there will be no more gun law from them?

Mr. Whitelaw

The hon. Gentleman has decided to indulge himself in many assertions which I do not for a moment accept.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the incident should not be used as an opportunity by Opposition Members to develop a vendetta against the police? Nevertheless, does he agree that there is substantial alarm, not only at the fact that the wrong man was hit but that implicit in the case is the possibility that the police might be allowed, in certain circumstances, to discharge their firearms in a public place that is busy with people' going about their ordinary business? Does he further agree that this is an important occasion for him and the Commissioner to consider whether the guidelines, when reviewed, should contain more positive directions on the subject? Does he agree that that would reassure the public?

Mr. Whitelaw

I have made it clear, as the House would expect, that the first step is to have the incident examined, from the legal point of view, by the Director of Public Prosecutions. There will be other lessons to learn from any subsequent reports. They will be examined in the context of what my hon. and learned Friend has said.

Mr. John Tilley (Lambeth, Central)

Is the Home Secretary aware that the injured man worked in Lambeth and that the question now being asked in Lambeth and, indeed, throughout London, is the one that the Home Secretary avoided earlier—how many of these tragedies must take place before the citizens of London have the same rights as citizens in every other city in Britain? There should be a locally elected police authority, which will enable public scrutiny of the regulations as a matter of routine to avoid such tragedies, rather than the scrutiny that the Home Secretary is now allowing us after the event. If the Home Secretary still does not believe that that issue is central to this incident, and as he believes that he must be the police authority, accountable to Parliament, will he give an assurance that the report being prepared by Sir Kenneth Newman on the policing of London will be made public? Secondly, will he assure the House that the issue will be debated in the House before he agrees to any of the recommendations?

Mr. Whitelaw

I still maintain that the issue of who controls the police and whether there should be an elected authority is not central to what we are discussing today.

With regard to the hon. Gentleman's second point, of course I shall consider Sir Kenneth Newman's report and consider how best it might be presented to the House. If my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons is prepared to agree, I shall be only too happy to have a debate on the subject.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South-West)

In spite of the appalling and inexcusable nature of this tragic case, is it not appropriate for my right hon. Friend to remind the citizens of London that they are better policed, better protected and less the victims of trigger-happy policemen than the citizens of any other major city in the world?

Mr. Whitelaw

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The whole House knows that that is true. I hope that the whole House will recognise that and reassure the Metropolitan Police accordingly today.

Mr. Stanley Cohen (Leeds, South-East)

In his statement, the Home Secretary made it clear that arms would be issued to the police only with the permission of a senior police officer. What is the rank of the police officer who agrees to issue arms to those members of the police force to use them in the type of circumstances that we are discussing?

Mr. Whitelaw

The general rules provide that only an inspector may allow the issue of firearms and that the issue must be reported immediately to a chief superintendent. It is not right for me to comment further on the present case.