Orders of the Day — Police Investigations (Publicity)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 10th February 1972.

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11.40 p.m.

Photo of Mr Clinton Davis Mr Clinton Davis , Hackney Central

On the morning of 15th December, 1971, there were headlines in a number of the national newspapers concerning a breathalyser test that had been applied to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) following an accident near Tottenham Court Road on the night of 14th December.

A typical headline is the one that appeared in the Sun, blazoned across the front page: Healey In Drink Test Quiz The Sun went on to report the collision and that a spokesman of New Scotland Yard had said: Mr. Healey went into the station to report the accident. Because of his condition a breath test was ordered and Mr. Healey agreed to it. The test proved positive, and so did a second B-test a short time later. If that statement was, in fact, issued by New Scotland Yard, it was grossly improper. To say Because of his condition a breath test was ordered was clearly contentious and prejudicial. I believe it was improper for the police to issue a statement at all.

I am concerned not simply with the case affecting my right hon. Friend but with the issue of principle that flows from it. It is necessary, in order to develop that point, to refer to certain basic facts relating to the breath test carried out in that case. I think it will not be disputed that there was an accident; that my right hon. Friend went to Tottenham Court Road police station voluntarily, together with another driver or drivers, to give particulars; that he then left the station; and that while he was exchanging particulars outside the station he was invited to go into the station again to undergo a breathalyser test, information which was imparted to him when he was within the police station itself, and as I understand it could not have been overheard by anyone else. The breathalyser test was given in conditions of confidence, so that only the police officers would have known that it had been given, and then a blood test was made. After that my right hon. Friend left the station.

Somehow or other the information that my right hon. Friend had been given a breath test was given publicity. There was a great shroud of mystery over the question of who imparted that information to the Press. There were reports that it was done by a minicab driver. Other reports suggested that it could only have been the police who did it. Even today it is not absolutely plain what the truth of the matter is. On 27th January the Secretary of State for the Home Department said: The Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis has held an inquiry. The investigating officer found no evidence that the result of the test was initially made public by the police."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th January, 1972 Vol. 829, c. 1592.] As I understand the position now, and I think the Minister of State will confirm this, it is conceded that the information was made public by the police so that there is a disparity between the answer on 27th January and the situation as we now know it to be. This is a serious matter going far wider than the interests affecting my right hon. Friend, who as a public figure ought not to have been treated in this way by the police.

The salient point about this is that this case was publicised although no charge had been preferred. It must have been known to the police as it is known to every lawyer and to most people who know anything about the Road Safety Act that the breathalyser test in itself is not and never can be deemed to be a bit of conclusive evidence that an offence has been committed contrary to the provisions of the Act.

The Guardian in a leader on 18th December said: The place to give evidence against a man, if any exists, is in court. The breathalyser, a useful instrument, has no validity as legal evidence. That succinctly puts the position absolutely accurately. It is but the first stage in the whole process of determining whether a prosecution can be brought. The police should have recognised that to release that information could be seriously prejudicial to a man in public life, or to anyone who might subsequently be involved in proceedings.

First of all, people can wrongly form the impression all too often that there is no smoke without fire. It is a dangerous proposition for people to accept, but unhappily rumour and gossip do gain currency. The sort of damaging innuendo that flowed from this report—I do not blame the Press because it has a duty to perform—can cause permanent damage. It was an innuendo totally without justification, as I am sure the Minister would concede.

As a result of what happened I and the hon. and learned Member for Wimbledon (Mr. Havers) put down a number of questions for Written Answer on the general issue. These gave rise to some extraordinary answers. On 22nd December the Minister of State said: It is not the practice of the Metropolitan Police to make public the name of a person being questioned or the result of a breath test before a summons is issued or a charge preferred, but facts already known to an inquirer may be confirmed."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22nd December, 1971; Vol. 828, c. 381.] I then raised a number of questions on that. What did the hon. Gentleman mean by "any inquirer"? The answer was given by the Minister of State on 18th January when he said: Information would normally be given to a relative or friend, subject to satisfactory identification and the consent of the person concerned. No one could grumble at that. He went on: Otherwise it is not the practice to supply information in these circumstances, but information already known to an inquirer may be confirmed. This is grossly unsatisfactory.

With these vague guidelines that are offered to the police any reporter making an intelligent guess can obtain that confirmation. Some reporters are instructed by their newspapers to make calls at police stations to find out information. That information should not be supplied unless a charge has been preferred or other proceedings have been initiated.

Another interesting development arose. The Minister then drew a distinction between the disclosure of the result of a breath test and a blood test. The Minister of State also said: Information cannot be given about the results of blood tests which are above the prescribed level because court proceedings might be prejudiced by publication. If, therefore, information were given about any blood tests it would be assumed that wherever information was refused proceedings must be in prospect.—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th January, 1972; Vol. 829, c. 165–6.] It is a strange distinction. If information is disclosed about breathalyser tests, this too could be seriously prejudicial in a prosecution for dangerous driving or driving without due care. I fail to see the logic of that answer.

I am concerned with the relationship between the police and the public, but it would be in the interests of the police for no information at all to be disclosed until proceedings were initiated, even when inquiries are made by the Press or anyone else. If that were the guideline, the absurdities to which I have referred would not arise.

There are situations in which the police require the assistance of the public in tracing individuals required for questioning in serious criminal cases. With that exception, what is wrong with my general proposition? This is the position in Scotland. If the case concerning my right hon. Friend had arisen in Scotland there would have been proceedings for contempt of court and heavy fines might have been imposed.

If my proposition were accepted it would prevent improper pressures being put on the police for the disclosure of information. The Minister may be concerned about the relationship between the police and the Press, but I believe that no damage would be done to that relationship because the police would have no discretion. They would not be permitted to divulge the information—and that would be an end to it—until a decision had been made about the initiation of prosecutions.

I am not seeking to carry on a vendetta against the police. I have said on many occasions in the House that I am concerned about the establishment of confidence between the police and the public. In circumstances like this where mistakes have occurred it is necessary for the police to be absolutely frank and open, to say they have made a mistake and that they are sorry. I am sorry that they did not do so in this case, but that is not the broad issue.

I believe if the proposition I advance were to be accepted as the new guidelines, confidence between public and police would be advantaged and not disadvantaged. This seems to be the gravamen of the argument adduced by the Minister. This is my purpose in raising this matter tonight, and I hope I have been not destructive but constructive because that is my objective.

11.55 p.m.

Photo of Mr Richard Sharples Mr Richard Sharples , Sutton and Cheam

The hon. Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Clinton Davis) has raised in this Adjournment debate a question of principle but has related it to a particular event which took place. I shall try in my reply to deal with the principle, and it is necessary in so doing that I should also deal with the particular case to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. I shall summarise the sequence of events on the evening in question.

First, however, I should make it clear that I referred to this matter on 22nd December in reply to a Question by the hon. Gentleman when I said that it was not the practice of the Metropolitan Police to make public the findings of a breath test on a named person before the institution of proceedings. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary would firmly reject any suggestion that such a practice should be allowed to develop.

I turn to the incident in question—I think it is necessary to do so in view of one or two of the things said by the hon. Gentleman—and how the exact circumstances arose. At about 10.30 p.m. on 14th December the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) was involved in an accident with two other vehicles in Tottenham Court Road. He drove on to report the accident at Tottenham Court Road police station. On arrival he got out, and at this point there was a further collision between the driver's door of his car and another vehicle. He went into the police station. Two of the other drivers involved also entered the police station shortly afterwards.

The sergeant in charge of the station established that no one had been injured, and his first thought was that the situation would be met by an exchange of particulars among the drivers who had been involved. He did not immediately appreciate that offences might have been committed. After hearing further details, however, he decided that the matters should be reported and he instructed two constables to investigate. One of those officers later told the duty officer that an allegation had been made that the right hon. Member for Leeds, East had been drinking. Two breath tests were then administered to the right hon. Member. Both were positive and he was asked to give a blood sample. This he agreed to do. He left the station shortly after the sample had been taken. The analysis of the blood sample later showed that the blood alcohol level of the right hon. Member was below the prescribed limit.

When the analysis of the blood sample became known a deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police telephoned the right hon. Member on 17th December informing him of the result of the analysis. This information was later confirmed by letter. When the right hon. Member asked about Press publicity he was told that it was for him to decide whether to release the information about the blood test to the Press.

I give these details because in view of what I am about to say it is essential that the House should be in possession of those facts. The main burden of the hon. Gentleman's remarks is his concern that the Press should have been able to obtain information about the accident, and in particular about the results of the breath tests, prior to any possible proceedings.

Photo of Mr Clinton Davis Mr Clinton Davis , Hackney Central

I am not concerned at all about the accident.

Photo of Mr Richard Sharples Mr Richard Sharples , Sutton and Cheam

I appreciate that, but the hon. Gentleman is concerned that the Press should have been able to obtain information about the accident. The suggestion that the police were responsible for releasing the information was carefully investigated in the course of an inquiry held by the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis. The investigating officer found no evidence that the result of the test was initially passed on to the Press by the police. That is the answer to what the hon. Gentleman has said: there is no evidence to show that the result of the test was initially passed on by the police.

The House will appreciate the very real difficulty which arises in questioning the sources of information to the Press. What the commissioner's inquiry has established is that there were quite a number of people outside the police service who knew that the accidents had taken place. There were the drivers of the three other vehicles involved in the accidents and other bystanders. There were also the customers of a nearby restaurant, including apparently at least one journalist, who quickly became aware of at least the first of the accidents.

One of the drivers involved—the driver of a minicab—has admitted that he informed the Press and another person. It is true and regrettable that he was told the result of the first breath test by one of the police officers concerned. I want to make it quite clear that this should not have happened. The commissioner has passed, through my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, his regret to the right hon. Member for Leeds, East that this should have happened.

It is fair to say, however, that very little in the way of explicit information would have been necessary since the minicab driver and one of the other drivers who were in the station owing to their involvement in the accident saw the breath test equipment and saw the right hon. Member being taken through the station after the first breath test. It would have been quite reasonable for them to have assumed the result of the breath test, even if they had not been told by one of the officers concerned.

I turn now to the general question of the handling of publicity before and after the institution of proceedings. The commissioner's inquiry into the incident on 14th December has shown that his existing instructions should ensure that information is not volunteered before the institution of proceedings, except in certain circumstances. Those are circumstances of the kind which the hon. Gentleman rightly outlined, for example where an escaped prisoner who has been the subject of a widely-published "wanted" notice is arrested. Once a charge has been preferred by the police, the details of the person charged may be released. Those are the instructions which are given.

The fact that someone has been given a breath test, positive or otherwise, is not volunteered by the Metropolitan Police prior to the institution of proceedings. If, however, the news leaks out that someone is in this position—and the risk of a leak is obviously greater if a public figure is involved—it is difficult for the police to deny what is already public knowledge. Nor would anything be gained for the person concerned by the police attempting to do so. To refuse confirmation of facts already known would probably lead to speculation that far more serious matters were in question.

I turn now to publicity about blood tests——

Photo of Mr Clinton Davis Mr Clinton Davis , Hackney Central

Before the hon. Gentleman leaves this point, can be confirm that the information which I have given about the practice in Scotland is correct? If that is right, why should the practice in Scotland be different from that adopted here? Surely speculation and the other fearful features to which the hon. Gentleman has referred apply equally in Scotland as in this country.

Photo of Mr Richard Sharples Mr Richard Sharples , Sutton and Cheam

Senior police officers must be responsible for their own handling of publicity in matters of this kind, provided that they are fair to the persons involved. They must also bear in mind carefully the effect that any publicity may have upon court proceedings which may follow. I have not had the time to check the exact relation between what happens in London and in Scotland. I have no reason to think that the same practice is followed by every police force in England. I have outlined the practice in the Metropolitan Police.

I turn to the other question raised by the hon. Gentleman concerning publicity about blood tests. The hon. Gentleman asked why no publicity was given of the result of the analysis of the blood sample given by the right hon. Member for Leeds, East. The answer lies in the fact that the results of the breath tests are not relevant to the securing of a conviction in any subsequent court proceedings whereas the results of a blood test are relevant.

To publicise analyses of blood samples which show an alcohol content above the prescribed level would definitely prejudice court proceedings. It follows that if information were given about any blood tests, it would be assumed that any test about which information was refused would have shown results above the prescribed level. The established practice, therefore, it is to refuse all information about blood tests.

I conclude on this note. I assure the House that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary shares the concern which has been expressed about the need to avoid publicity prior to the institution of proceedings. He is satisfied that the instructions given by the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis on this point are adequate and that in the ordinary course of events the results of breath tests would not be made public before a charge was preferred or a summons issued. The hon. Gentleman referred to the statement which is alleged to have been issued by the New Scotland Yard press bureau and it is quite true, as he said, that a report appeared in the Sun that the right hon. Member was given a breath test and that the words "because of his condition" were used, those words being attributed to a spokesman from New Scotland Yard.

It would have been quite improper for the press bureau to have said anything of that kind. The commissioner informs me that no one in the press bureau has any recollection of saying this. The press bureau is now in no doubt that it should confine itself simply to the bare facts of the case.

My right hon. Friend shares the view of the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis that relations between his force and the Press would become very difficult if his officers were prevented from confirming facts already firmly in the possession of the press in such a case. It would clearly be wrong to go beyond this and as a result of this case the staff of the press bureau at New Scotland Yard have been left in no doubt as to the point to which they can go in giving information to the Press in a case of this kind.

It is always a difficult balance to maintain, especially where a public figure is involved in an incident of this kind. The Press, quite rightly from its own point of view, considers an incident in the light of its news value. It uses, as one would expect, all means available to it to try to obtain information about the incident. The police, and particularly the Press officers at New Scotland Yard, are under great pressure to give details. There may sometimes be problems of judgment which have to be solved. On the whole, however, I think they carry out their job very well and we should give them credit for doing so.

Photo of Mr Clinton Davis Mr Clinton Davis , Hackney Central

I hope the hon. Gentleman will accept from me that I in no way wish to make a blanket criticism of the police. I share his views about them in general terms. It was, of course, the principle to which I was alluding.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes past Twelve o'clock.