Photo of Ms Julia Drown

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon, Labour)

I rise to raise the case of the murders in November 2003 of Julia and William Pemberton by Alan Pemberton. After shooting his wife and 17-year-old son, Alan Pemberton took his own life. Those deaths followed a history of domestic violence to which the police were alerted 15 months before the tragedy.

A number of the family and friends of Julia and William Pemberton are my constituents. I share their desire to understand the events leading up to that appalling tragedy and to stop similar events happening in future. We ask the Home Secretary, via the Minister, to call for a homicide review, to ask for the conduct of the coroner in the case, Peter Bedford, to be reviewed, and we seek a review of the granting of injunctions in domestic violence cases.

Many people are familiar with the final moments of Julia Pemberton's life, after the transcript of her 999 call was read to the inquest in September 2004. People heard of Julia's desperate pleas for help, her saying that her husband was approaching, was in the room and then silence, because Alan had found her, hit her and shot her. What is not so well known is the list of police failings leading up to the murders. The family are in no doubt that those failings contributed significantly to the deaths. If the police had done their job properly, we could expect those three people to be alive today.

The state has a positive duty to protect life. Home Office circular 19/2000 made that clear. It said that a force policy should be issued on domestic violence, making it clear that

"the main duty is to protect the victims and, if applicable, any children from further abuse",

that incidents should be investigated fully, and stressing

"the importance of comprehensive record keeping."

The Thames Valley police failed Julia and William Pemberton in all those areas. The chief executive of Refuge, Sandra Horley, said that, in her 28 years of experience working with women and children escaping from domestic violence, she has never come across such a tragic and preventable series of events.

The family and I have had many meetings with Thames Valley police. Some have taken place with Mr. Rendel, in whose constituency the murders were committed. I am grateful to the police for giving us many hours of their time at those meetings and for answering many questions in writing. However, the family and I remain hugely dissatisfied with their response.

I have also discussed domestic violence issues with Swindon's police, who are part of the Wiltshire constabulary. They have a far more proactive approach to domestic violence. The difference in attitude is remarkable. I should like to record my appreciation of the commitment of Swindon's police to those issues.

I share the family's scepticism of the commitment of Thames Valley police to policing domestic violence. We have seen incompetence, complacency and the failure to follow Home Office and Crown Prosecution Service guidelines. That is apparent in the details of the events, and can be seen in the police's refusal, despite many requests from the family, to initiate any sort of inquiry.

I shall relate the events to the Chamber. In September 2002, Julia informed her husband, Alan, that she wished for a divorce, following years of abuse. Alan threatened to kill Julia and commit suicide. To reinforce that threat, Alan left out in the study his and Julia's wills for Julia and their children to see, with instructions in the event of their deaths for their son William, then aged 15. Alan also scrawled numerous menacing messages in the study.

A threat to kill is a serious crime, and Julia and her brother, my constituent Frank Mullane, reported those threats repeatedly and persistently to the police in Newbury and begged them to visit the house to see the corroborating evidence. The police promised to attend, but did not. The police recorded the incident as a domestic dispute and did not report it to CID. Instead, the police domestic violence file recorded that further calls from Julia's brother Frank did not need to be responded to fast-time, despite Julia saying that she was willing to make a statement and to press charges.

After two days of relentless ringing of the police and getting no action, Julia and Frank visited Newbury police station, where they were referred to the domestic violence unit. Julia was advised to take civil action to secure an injunction preventing Alan from entering the family home or communicating with her, with a power of arrest, which she did. The domestic violence co-ordinator wrote a letter in support of that action, in which she stated, with reference to the wills being left out:

"In all my experience as Domestic Violence Co-ordinator I have not come across such a cruel act. I have flagged Julia's address to the effect that—any incidents from or to the house are to be treated urgently."

That did not happen. Julia was informed that, if she made a 999 call, even a silent one, the police would be with her within 10 minutes. Again, that did not happen. By failing to visit the house, Thames Valley police failed to witness evidence in situ, so failing to give Julia the protection that she needed. There was no attempt to establish possible escape routes for Julia if Alan tried to enter the house, or to provide her with a safety plan.

Over the next several months, Julia and members of the family continued to receive numerous threats from Alan Pemberton. In April 2003, Julia and her son William returned from holiday and found the locks of the house superglued. She and her brother Frank reported that incident to the police, who promised that Alan Pemberton would be interviewed. He was not, despite the fact that, as the only likely suspect, he was clearly in breach of the injunction with the power of arrest. The police did not visit the property to collect any evidence. New locks had been fitted since the courts ordered Alan's exit from the house, so the presence of his fingerprints would have been incriminating.

A month later, Julia was told by the police that the case would not be pursued for lack of evidence and that the crime file was closed. That incident was never linked to the domestic violence unit, although Julia and Frank had repeatedly told the police of the injunction with the power of arrest in place and the death threats. Thames Valley police have since admitted that their handling of that incident was a failing on their part.

In May 2003, an envelope was hand-delivered to Julia's house addressed to William. Enclosed was a copy of the affidavit that Julia had sworn to secure the injunction. There were several menacing threats scrawled across the affidavit in Alan's handwriting, giving further evidence of his intentions. After seeking legal advice, Julia and her brother Frank delivered the affidavit to Newbury police station and explained the history of death threats, the glued locks and the injunction with the power of arrest in place. They made it very clear to the officer on duty how important that threatening document was, and Frank asked that it be reported to Sergeant Downing, to whom he had reported the original death threats.

Frank phoned the police after they had left the station, but it fell on deaf ears. Yet again, the police failed to respond appropriately to that third piece of serious evidence. As it is highly likely that Alan had delivered the affidavit to the house, it was a likely further breach of the injunction. It was also evidence of the continuing threatening behaviour of Alan Pemberton, which itself breached the injunction. The family had understood that any breaking of the injunction had to result in an arrest. I should be grateful if the Minister could clarify that.

Alan did not receive a response from the family, so he personally gave another copy of that document to William, who was aged 16. It is surprising that, as well as not addressing the abuse that Julia suffered, the police seemingly did not consider the seriousness of involving a child in the matter. The police have no record of having received the document, which, after the murders, was found in the closed glued-locks file. However, it took the family to tell the police of the existence of that evidence. Thames Valley police conceded that officers should have visited Alan Pemberton after seeking such evidence and that a lack of basic investigative skills existed. The police claim that they cannot identify the officer who took delivery of the document, despite a very particular description having been given by Frank Mullane.

In June 2003, Julia met the domestic violence co-ordinator. A panic alarm was subsequently installed in her home. She told the co-ordinator about the ongoing situation, the incidents involving the locks and the affidavit but, yet again, no action was taken to tackle Alan. That was a failure by the police, who should have done more to protect Julia. In terms of preventing a crime in the case, there was a complete disregard of the repeat victimisation suffered by Julia Pemberton; inadequate monitoring of the case; appalling information handling; a lack of supervision of the domestic violence co-ordinator; no training given to domestic violence co-ordinators; and a failure to use any of the available legislation, including that on the breach of injunction and the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

More significant was the failure of Thames Valley police to recognise the seriousness of domestic violence and to implement an effective policy. That should have happened following Home Office guidelines issued in 1990—13 years earlier; surely there was enough time for them to be implemented, especially when they were reinforced by further guidelines in 2000. Instead, two sets of strong recommendations for a proactive approach to domestic violence incidents through arrest, investigation and recording, which were produced to protect the public, were ignored. Instead, for Thames Valley police, the co-ordinator's role was purely one of liaison, but it should have been more.

Thames Valley police have tried partly to excuse the failure to investigate the crimes by saying that they have a highly inexperienced force. The family are rightly appalled that the obvious failure to educate and to train officers appropriately should be dismissed so easily. It is shocking that, pre-July 2003, the police authority did not have any domestic violence policy at all. Thames Valley police have told us that they are revising their domestic violence policy. I have seen evidence of that and I welcome it, but concerns remain.

For example, the new policy will include a risk assessment. Although they have since changed their view, the police's first assessment to the family was that, even under the new policy, Alan Pemberton may not have been classified as high-risk. That statement is shocking, as a domestic violence co-ordinator had already marked the risk as having escalated, so that all incidents to and from the house would be treated urgently. If the new risk assessment model would not have unquestionably classified Alan Pemberton as high-risk, one questions the effectiveness of the entire policy.

I share the family's concerns about the slowness with which lessons on domestic violence are being learned by Thames Valley police. The family and I have pushed the police to find out what went wrong and to learn lessons from these tragedies. We are concerned that domestic violence has not been taken seriously by past and present chief constables. Home Office research indicates that an apparent lack of direction and managerial commitment to domestic violence results in a marginalisation of domestic violence work. That was the case up to and including November 2003, and we have no confidence that the situation has changed.

Julia Pemberton was thoroughly disillusioned with the police response. As a health visitor, she was a member of the local domestic violence forum, but she was shocked to find out first-hand the true nature of policing in this area. She was left to take out a private injunction, was advised to move—an impractical option for her at the time—and was told to have an aromatherapy bath and relax. One can imagine her feelings—that utterly trivialised a threat to kill. If what happened were not, literally, deadly serious, it would be farcical.

Julia reported to her friend, comparing that with the police response to a stolen bike:

"when my son's bike was stolen two police officers turned up at my door. When my husband threatened to kill me, no one was there to help."

To add further insult to the family, 10 months after she died, Thames Valley police sent Julia a customer satisfaction survey.

On 18 November 2003, Alan Pemberton arrived at Julia's house, ostensibly to take William for a driving lesson. When Julia heard sounds of commotion outside, she called the police. Her 16-minute 999 call described her fear for her and her son's lives. She reported several gun shots and pleaded for help. The transcript, read out at the inquest, left out crucial parts of the call. During the call, Julia was asked repeatedly to give her address. She sought advice on whether to run or stay, and was told to stay hidden. She questioned why it was taking the police so long to arrive, and was told that police were on their way "now". Perhaps a minute before she died, she was even led to believe that they were outside the house. She was told to stop screaming and shouting.

Julia was asked to give directions to her house. It took between 10 and 12 minutes before the property was identified, despite the fact that it was flagged on the police computer and that previously Julia had been told that even a silent 999 call would be responded to urgently. It is sickening to think of how Julia must have felt when it dawned on her—as it clearly did—that, despite repeated police promises of a fast response if she ever rang 999, they did not even know where she lived.

Of course, Julia was not allowed to know that the firearms policy at the time appeared to exclude the option of immediate attendance to firearms incidents. We have heard differing police dispatch times. The first response was unarmed, and left 24 minutes—not, as she had been led to expect, 10 minutes—from the start of the call. It took 24 minutes for an unarmed team to be dispatched. By then, William had been shot five times, and Julia four times.

That unarmed team dispatched to locate the property arrived to see William's body on the drive. In an incredible act of bravery, and contrary to Thames Valley police policy, the three officers—Hadley, Ainsley and Blackburn—attempted to help William. The family have thanked those officers and I join them. However, the irony is that the officers who stand out as having done everything, and more, that the family could have expected from the police, were the ones who breached the police's policy.

What Julia needed was a firearms response, but it was more than one hour after she picked up the phone before the first armed response arrived outside the grounds. Armed units did not enter the house for almost seven hours, despite the fact that no sounds from it had been heard for more than six hours. Instead of going directly to the house, armed units were sent to a remote rendezvous point, and further problems were caused by poor communication among the police. The wrong silver commander was initially called, with the correct one not called for more than an hour after the start of the 999 call. When the silver commander finally arrived, he moved the rendezvous point and did not take command until three hours and 26 minutes after the call started.

During that time, it was not known whether Julia was dead or alive. The police priority was to preserve the lives of officers rather than the lives of victims. The police justified their lack of action by saying that it was not known whether Alan was still in the house and therefore a danger to the police or the public, even though no noise had been heard by anybody after 7.40 pm, 13 minutes after Julia's call had ended.

The police have now recognised that their firearms policy was over-cautious. The review of their firearms policy as a result of a similar tragedy at Highmoor means that they may now intervene more quickly and go directly to the house, which is what Julia needed. However, it is critical that future victims are given a true estimate of armed response arrival and, more importantly, whether the police will enter the house on arrival. It is not acceptable that a victim who is relying completely on the advice as they consider their options is told lies, leading them to make potentially fatal choices.

I turn now to events subsequent to the murders. After the family had an initial meeting with the police, the police refused to meet them again until after the coroner's hearing. That gave the family no option but to put their lives and grieving on hold while they tried to comprehend what had happened. I had to wait months for even a reply to my first letter to the chief constable formally asking for a meeting.

There are still lessons to be learned from the case, including on action in response to threats of violence and the advice on escape routes and police response times that is given to domestic violence victims. I hope that the Minister will see the necessity of a full homicide review, so that all the issues can be examined and learned from. I realise that he does not have the powers to insist on such a review, but I hope that he will be willing to raise it.

Photo of Ms Vera Baird

Ms Vera Baird (Redcar, Labour)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the conscientious way in which she has pursued the case and supported the family's quest for an inquiry. Has she had an opportunity to note section 9 of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004, which allows the Secretary of State to order a review of any domestic violence killing? The interesting point is that the provision does not seem to say that that is applicable only to deaths after the passage of the Act. It may be that the Secretary of State has the power to order Thames Valley police to order an inquiry.

Photo of Ms Julia Drown

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon, Labour)

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that intervention, and I hope that the Minister can clarify that point for us. The other lessons may also need to be referred to the Department for Constitutional Affairs, and I hope that the Minister will do so.

In July 2003, Julia returned to the Reading court to have an injunction with a power of arrest renewed. In addition to her original affidavit, she had sworn a further two, detailing the ongoing threats and breaches of the injunction. However, the injunction was reduced to an undertaking. Julia accepted that, because it avoided her having to go through a full hearing and because the police were aware of her situation and had installed a panic button. She was led to believe that Alan could be arrested, even without the stronger injunction.

We can see how the law lets such people down: to avoid a traumatic hearing, protections weaken for victims. Under the Family Law Act 1996, it is clear that the courts should not accept an undertaking when the respondent has used or threatened to use violence, as happened in this case. I hope that the Minister can clarify how that happened and say what could be done to give people better protection through the process—in particular, whether the police should apply for the injunction rather than the victim.

On the inquest, the first coroner appointed to the case had legally unacceptable connections with Alan but failed to exclude himself until the family threatened judicial review. I hope that that can be investigated. Even with the actual coroner, there were problems. There are different sorts of coroners' inquests. One has a narrow remit and the other a wider one, which is used if the coroner wants an investigation under article 2 of the European convention on human rights to establish system failure. In such article 2 cases, it is possible for more extensive inquiries to be made. Even if article 2 is not invoked, the coroner has a duty to be alert to the evidence presented and to adjourn if he finds any indication of system failure by an organ of the state. Any scent of system failure that might have contributed to a death should lead to the coroner adjourning the case.

Initially, the family decided not to pursue article 2, because they wanted to minimise their trauma and they did not have access to all the information. For example, Thames Valley police refused to produce the command and control logs for the family until after the inquest, which prevented them and their solicitor from discovering some of the facts and the extent of the system failure.

At a preliminary hearing in May 2003, the police defended any moves by the coroner to include witnesses that might indicate that he was widening the interest parameters. The police's attitude can be summed up by the words of the barrister at the inquest, who described the gluing of all external locks, which should have been taken seriously as a reason to question Alan Pemberton, as nothing more than £150 worth of damage—in other words, an accounting entry.

The family submitted to the coroner before the inquest a statement reminding him of his duty to consider article 2, but it was clear that he had no intention of pursuing that. Yet, as the inquest progressed, it was apparent that there were ample indications of system failure. The Highmoor case, which showed that police firearms policy was over-cautious, was well known to the police by the time of the inquest and should again have been a reason to look at system failure.

The coroner accepted far too lightly the delays in the police response on the night, suggesting that, for the first dispatch, if one deducts the time of the call, the time delays were less serious. That is crazy, given that the police want victims to stay on the line. The comment that

"The only way . . . Julia Pemberton's life could have been saved would have been if she had had armed police escort throughout the time that she believed she was at risk"

makes a mockery of the police's duty to protect and preserve life. The coroner failed to pick up glaring contradictions given by the Thames Valley police officers at the hearing, which revealed the further need to review the case. These inconsistencies should have given rise to serious questions as to what happened.

The coroner showed a total lack of compassion and sensitivity towards the family of Julia and William Pemberton and in particular to Laura, the surviving daughter. He expressed no acknowledgement of the family's grief and offered no words of encouragement to Laura. Perhaps most revealing was when he remarked that William could not have done something to deserve being shot, implying that Julia did. In view of all those failings I hope that the Minister will agree to get that behaviour looked at, to consider a homicide review of the whole case and to look at how injunctions need to be dealt with in future.

This is about the two people who are killed every week in this country from domestic violence. I hope that the Minister will also agree that an apology is due to the family from the police and the coroner. It would be a comfort to this grieving family to know that their unstinting work has achieved something for others who might otherwise face the trauma that Julia and William faced on that horrific night and in the months that led up to those fatal moments.

3:52 pm
Photo of Mr Paul Goggins

Mr Paul Goggins (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office; Wythenshawe and Sale East, Labour)

My hon. Friend Ms Drown will appreciate that by outlining the case in great detail she has not left me much time to respond, but I will do so as fully as I can. May I begin by congratulating her on bringing the tragic case of Julia and William Pemberton to the attention of the House this afternoon? I join with my hon. and learned Friend Vera Baird in paying tribute to the way she has pursued the issue and others in this place on behalf of her constituents. It is important when we develop policy that we do so in a way that is informed by cases such as this tragic one, so that we get our policies right and make them more effective.

It was concern about precisely this kind of tragic case that gave the momentum to the legislation which my hon. and learned Friend mentioned, the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act, which it was my privilege last year to take through the House. It received Royal Assent in November. There are some relevant measures within that Act which I hope will give my hon. Friend some reassurance.

There are two main messages. The first is to victims of domestic violence: the Government and the law are on their side and they can expect that the law will move more swiftly to their aid. Just as important, the message to the perpetrators of domestic violence is that their behaviour will no longer be tolerated and that if they persist in that behaviour they will feel the full weight and force of the law as it bears down upon them.

It might be helpful if I mentioned some specific measures in the Act that are relevant. First, it makes common assault an arrestable offence. That means that it will now be a police matter whether to arrest when called out to a domestic violence incident when there has been an assault. In other words, there will no longer be the burden on the victim to press charges. Secondly, it criminalises the breach of a non-molestation order and changes the law, so that the police can always arrest for breach. Where a non-molestation order has been issued, breaching it will always be a criminal offence and therefore will attract the power of arrest. Again, that shifts the burden of responsibility for enforcement from the victim to the criminal justice system.

I hope that my hon. Friend is reassured that the new power addresses one of the key points that she raised. In other words, the power of arrest will automatically be attached to every breach of an order. She mentioned the specific case involving Julia. The problem seems to have been that the order was downgraded to an undertaking and that her understanding of what that undertaking meant in terms of the power of arrest was not actually what could happen. We must ensure as we go forward that everyone—the police and the courts—are clearer about the new powers.

We are extending the availability of restraining orders to cover all violent offences. Following any violent incident, courts will now have the power to issue a restraining order against a perpetrator or potential perpetrator. We are also introducing local multi-agency homicide reviews. During 2005, we shall commence the introduction of homicide reviews for all domestic violence-related homicides, so that local agencies can learn lessons and adjust their policies and procedures accordingly. I shall say a little more about that in a moment.

I know that my hon. Friend has a specific concern about whether there could be a domestic homicide review in relation to this case. She acknowledged—indeed, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar made it clear—that there are new provisions for domestic homicide reviews to take place. We are developing guidance on that. The reviews will not be mandatory. We want them to be light-touch investigations that improve practice, so that local agencies can make the necessary changes, but there will be a reserve power for the Secretary of State to order such a review if there is a lack of willingness and it is considered necessary for that to take place.

My understanding is that there is not a power for that to be operated retrospectively, but given that the issue has been raised this afternoon, it will need further clarification. My noble Friend Baroness Scotland will meet my hon. Friend and members of the family in the near future. I hope that, by the time that that meeting takes place, we can be clear on whether there is a retrospective power. I do not believe that there is that power, but I undertake to provide clarity on that. Having said that, there would be nothing to prevent the local agencies from deciding to conduct such a review themselves. Already in certain parts of the country and certainly in London on occasion, the agencies voluntarily agree to undertake a review. It is a deeply serious point that we should learn from every tragedy wherever we can.

My hon. Friend will understand that, although we all look forward to the introduction of the important measures in the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act, the question whether there is a retrospective power will need further clarification. She will also understand that, although I have responsibility for the law and policy in relation to coroners services, I do not carry the authority to discipline coroners or to take any view about their conduct. That is a matter for the Lord Chancellor and the Department for Constitutional Affairs, but I will draw to the Lord Chancellor's attention the comments that she has made this afternoon.

The 2004 Act will give us new powers to ensure that the victim in cases of domestic violence is better protected, but in the end we are trying to change the culture—the custom and practice—so that all criminal justice agencies operate with the interests of victims of domestic violence at the heart of everything that they do. Domestic violence homicide reviews will help to change the culture, as will the more certain powers that we have, but we must make it clear that the victim is our top priority.