Orders of the Day — Police Interview Procedure

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 26th November 1975.

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11.10 p.m.

Photo of Mr Chris Price Mr Chris Price , Lewisham West

The matter that I wish to raise arises from the Confait murder case, which has gained a great deal of notoriety since, last month, Lord Justice Scarman quashed the verdicts in the case on a reference from my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. It is the implications of that judgment for police interrogation that I should like to discuss.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's rapid response to my plea for an inquiry into the case. Sir Henry Fisher is an excellent individual to inquire into it. He is the only judge who has resigned en route through the judiciary, as it were. His impartiality is unprecedented. I think that he will do the job very well.

However, I have two criticisms of the terms of reference. First, I am sorry that it has been decided to have the inquiry in private. I was a member of the Sheffield City Council in 1962 when the rhino whip inquiry took place. Many policemen said afterwards that the fact that it had taken place in public cleared the air and, on balance, was right.

Secondly, I am sorry that the inquiry is limited to the point when the trial started. I am glad that it will be able to investigate both the action of the Director of Public Prosecutions and that of the police, but it will not be able to investigate the action of the barristers in the trial. That will be seen as the lawyers' club clamming up and letting everyone but themselves be investigated.

Will my constituents at the inquiry be allowed legal representation, with the costs being borne in the costs of the inquiry? Will their representatives and the representatives of others at the inquiry be allowed to cross-examine witnesses?

I am not making an anti-police speech. Certainly, the mess in the Confait murder case—and it was a disgraceful mess—is not the fault of the police alone; the lawyers must bear their share of the responsibility,

I have had more than 100 letters, as a result of the publicity in this case, detailing other instances. The case has shown that there is grave, nation-wide disquiet about the whole area of police interrogation. The fact that one of the defendants in the Confait murder case had an intelligence quotient of 68 and yet still had his confession statement accepted in the court has, I think, caused more disquiet than has anything else.

In order to illustrate my point, I should like to read two of the letters that I have received. One is from the headmaster of a special school in Lancashire—a man who has had 25 years' experience of teaching subnormal children. He writes of an incident in these terms: The most recent concerned an old boy of mine, now aged 22. He was taken to the police station one evening and charged with indecent assault on a young woman. She said she had recognised him from being in his class at the junior school, and remembered who he was several weeks after the alleged offence. He was told at the police station what the charge was, and after two hours he got worried that his parents would miss him. He was told that he could go home if he signed a paper, and if he didn't he would be kept there all night and taken to court in the morning. He signed—a full confession. He never saw the girl, didn't know who she was, and on the night in question, is father told me, he was at home, helping to fix a new hi-fi set which had been delivered that day. In spite of the usual pleas—and explanations in court about being 'conned' into signing the statement, the lad was fined £80. His father and I are convinced that he was innocent, but after signing to get himself out of the police station he never had a chance. The other letter I should like to read comes from Carlisle, Cumbria. This mother writes: My boy is mentally retarded, he is 27 years but his mental age is only 6 years and not able to read or write. Three years ago the police stopped my boy on a Saturday afternoon while he was delivering leaflets for the Church and took him down to the police station and got him to confess and make a statement admitting he had indecently assaulted an 8½ year old girl. We were out looking for him as he is never late for his meals, but it was Saturday night before the police came and told us. My husband and I employed a private detective and with his help we found it was impossible for it to have been Gordon. I demanded an identity parade but did not get one, it took from the August to the following January before his name was cleared but the slur is always there. Cases like that—I have dozens of them—really do cause grave disquiet over the whole problem of the interrogation of mentally retarded youngsters. I very much hope that the Home Office will do something about this in advance of the inquiry.

On 17th July 1975, as reported at col. 584 of the Official Report, the Home Secretary answered a Question of mine about issuing extra administrative directions to Judges' Rules by saying that he was consulting chief officers about current practice and the extent to which further guidance was required. Today I had an answer in almost similar terms. In other words, for the past few months absolutely nothing appears to have happened.

If I may remind the House, the preamble to the Judges' Rules says that it would be proper for the Home Office to issue administrative directions about people of feeble mind and feeble intelligence, among a large number of other things. All those other things are mentioned in the administrative directions to Judges' Rules, but through some oversight the problem of the mentally retarded has never been mentioned in the administrative directions to Judges' Rules. I very much hope that my hon. Friend will give an assurance that the fact that this inquiry is going on will not hold up the Home Office's process of issuing the extra directions, and give us a date on which she hopes to issue those directions.

Another aspect of this matter, upon which the Home Office is engaged, is that it is committed to start a pilot project on the tape recording of police interrogations.

The decision to set up the committee was announced in October 1974. It was set up in February 1975. From a Written Answer that I had today, I find that, although it was set up in February of this year, it has held only five meetings between February and November. I do not think that even my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will agree that that is good enough, in an area where clearly we want some progress. I hope that my hon. Friend will tell us when she expects the committee to report, so that a pilot project, in a single area of Britain where the police are happy that it should be started, can be started, and we can see the snags and how we can make progress.

It is not easy, I know. Police to whom I have talked have said that the criminal can fix a tape recording by shouting, "Stop hitting me, you bastard". It needs some sort of experimentation. We have dragged our feet for too long over this matter.

The truth is that additional administrative powers would help over mental retardation. Tape recording of police interrogations is not enough. I am convinced from the weight of letters that I have received that we must give all our citizens, whether adults or children, whether mentally retarded or mentally normal, far greater protection under police interrogation.

From this point of view, I shall not regard the Fisher inquiry into the Confait case as the end of the story. I shall not even regard it—to paraphrase a much greater parliamentarian than I—as the beginning of the end. It will perhaps be the end of the beginning. There will be a great deal to do after the Fisher inquiry has reported.

A little less than nine years ago, in the United States of America, there was a scandalous case similar to the Confait case. It became known as the Miranda case. As a result of that, police interrogation in the United States has undergone substantial change. I know that the lawyers will tell me that it is not the same in this country. I know that it is not, and I do not wish to be told so again, but I believe that the law in these matters gets changed only when a case as scandalous as this arises, and it will be my concern to make sure that the Home Office acts in a way that is fair both to the police and to the individual citizen in establishing better procedures here.

First, we must revise the Judges' Rules. They have not been revised substantially since they were first introduced at the beginning of the century. Secondly, the right to consult a solicitor—someone in-dependent—before interview and interrogation must be written into our procedures, and any breach of these rewritten Judges' Rules must automatically make any confession statement inadmissible.

The difficulty about the Judges' Rules at the moment is twofold. First, they are out of date. Secondly, the courts have a very wide discretion to ignore them. They can simply say that although breaches have occurred, nevertheless the evidence can be admitted. Although they attempt to explain to juries that they are admitting this evidence in these circumstances, in my view juries are not sophisticated enough to understand this. Certainly, in the Confait case this is what happened. A confession statement was admitted after legal argument and the jury appears to have swallowed it whole.

I wish to emphasise that I have received letters from policemen who say that they would welcome some change in procedures. Such a change could protect the police as much as the individual citizen. At the moment the time of our courts is wasted—to say nothing of the waste of public money involved—in endless arguments about whether the Judges' Rules were breached during interrogations. If an independent element, like a tape recording, was present, all that argument would be washed away and a great deal of public money, bitterness and unhappiness, as instanced in the Confait case and the letters which I read out, would be saved. Moreover, the growing habit of accusing the police of "verbal-ling" and making false accusations against the police in court would be finished for good.

I welcome the inquiry, but I should like the Minister to comment on the matter and to give me an assurance that she will not use this inquiry as an excuse to do nothing about the two matters which the Home Office is looking into—namely, tape recording and the extra administrative direction to Judges' Rules.

11.26 p.m.

Photo of Mr Ivor Stanbrook Mr Ivor Stanbrook , Bromley Orpington

The hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) has done the House a service in raising the topic of police interview procedure. Last year, in my constituency, a case arose which had some similarity to the one which the hon. Gentleman referred to. One of my constituents, a Miss Mary Ranson, who suffers from an epileptic condition, was arrested and charged with the kidnapping of a baby after having made what was alleged to be a confession. The case was dropped by the prosecution after a strong alibi witness appeared. That case illustrates the point that the hon. Gentleman has just made and underlines the importance of an early report from the committee which is now investigating the question of the tape recording of interviews with suspected persons.

If one of the committee's recommendations was that any confession or statement by an accused person which had any bearing on the subject of the charge, must be recorded, we should have evidence which not only would be in the interests of defendants who may be of retarded intelligence, but would do more justice to the police in all such cases.

11.37 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Dr. Shirley Summer-skill):

I welcome this debate. I know that my hon. Friend's interest in its subject has been stimulated by the Confait case, in which he has taken an extremely close and active interest. I know that the House will appreciate that as an inquiry has been set up I cannot enter into discussion about this particular case or the lessons which might be drawn from it. My right hon. Friend will consider whether any action is necessary on his part in the light of Sir Henry Fisher's report. The question of who can be represented legally will be decided by the Chairman, Sir Henry Fisher, and after that it can be decided whether legal aid will be possible.

On the general question of police interview procedure, the House will recognise the need to weigh the rights of the suspect against the interests of the community in bringing offenders to justice. I should like to emphasise that there is a question of a balance here, in which two sets of desired results have to be weighed against each other. The Judges' Rules seek to balance those considerations. On the one hand, Rule 1, for example, states that: When a police officer is trying to discover whether or by whom an offence has been committed he is entitled to question any person, whether suspected or not, from whom he thinks that useful information may be obtained. On the other hand, the preamble to the Rules recognises that it is a fundamental condition of the admissibility of evidence against any person that any oral answer or written statement shall have been voluntary in the sense that it has not been obtained…by fear or prejudice or hope of advantage, exercised or held out by a person in authority, or by oppression. The Rules have, I know, been criticised for lack of clarity. They are considered by some to be ineffective in protecting the interests of the suspect. Others regard them as hampering the work of the police. The balance is a difficult one to formulate and I do not suppose that we shall ever be able to produce a formula which satisfies everyone. But I think that the Rules deserve respect. They were drawn up by a committee of judges and approved by a meeting of all the Queen's Bench judges as an authoritative statement of that balance of interests to which I have referred, and the need for which I think is generally agreed upon. By and large, I think that they have stood the test of time pretty well.

The Rules are concerned with police interview procedure from the perspective of the admissibility of evidence. My hon. Friend has proposed that evidence of confessions should not be admissible except where an independent person is present during the interview. I should like to make the point that this is a very broad-brush proposal. It would exclude evidence of confessions quite properly obtained as well as those about which there might be argument. There are some situations—for example, at the scene of a crime—where there is no real prospect of arranging for the presence of an independent person. Why should evidence of oral admissions freely and voluntarily made in such circumstances be inadmissible? The courts already have full power to exclude evidence of a confession which has been improperly obtained. Where an oral admission is disputed, it is for the jury to decide whether to believe the police officer concerned or the accused. I acknowledge that evidence of oral admissions is inherently less satisfactory than a written statement signed by the accused, but the courts have never excluded it as inadmissible, and we must face the fact that to do so would in some cases enable those who have committed serious crimes to escape conviction.

Photo of Mr Chris Price Mr Chris Price , Lewisham West

My hon. Friend referred to the eminance of the various judges who drew up the Rules and to the fact that the courts have taken a certain view. Will she concede that in this whole area the community has just as much interest in seeing that these Rules are fair as the lawyers and that their definition should not be the exclusive preserve of the legal profession?

Photo of Dr Shirley Summerskill Dr Shirley Summerskill , Halifax

Yes, I agree with that. I am aware that in Parliament representations are often made, as in the debate earlier tonight, about the Judges' Rules. Obviously these representations are noted and borne in mind.

Photo of Mr Ivan Lawrence Mr Ivan Lawrence , Burton

Does the hon. Lady agree that the trouble is that the Rules are frequently observed in the breach only by the police and that they are not properly enforced by the judiciary? Would not the best solution to the problem be to recognise that the right to silence which the Rules seek to protect has gone, to abolish the Rules, and to safeguard the individual by having tape-recorded interviews?

Photo of Dr Shirley Summerskill Dr Shirley Summerskill , Halifax

I shall be coming to that aspect later. I shall deal, first, with the independent element. That would involve an immense amount of extra work and expense for many people, most of which would be quite unnecessary. I can give no figures for the number of police interviews every year both inside and outside a police station of witnesses and of suspects, but they probably run into millions rather than hundreds of thousands. The majority of such interviews are likely to be with persons who can give the police information and are not suspected of a possible criminal offence. Who is to say, however, at the beginning of every interview, what will emerge from it? The presence of an independent person at every interview, on the lines that my hon. Friend has suggested, would, without doubt, lead to considerable delay, even if a suitable system could be arranged. It would be expensive. It would inevitably mean, that in many cases suspects would have to be held for some time before an interview could take place.

What do we mean by an independent person? Is he to be truly independent—someone who has no connection with either the police or the person being interviewed—or do we mean someone who is known to the person being interviewed? What is the locus of the person to be? What happens if he breaches the confidentiality of an interview with the result that the confederates of the suspect are alerted and pressure is brought to bear on witnesses?

The Rules do in any case provide for the presence of a third party at a police interview in certain circumstances. The position of children for example, is safeguarded. The administrative directions appended to the Rules provide that where it is necessary to interview a child, this should, as far as practicable, be done only in the presence of a parent or guardian or, in their absence, some person who is not a police officer and is of the same sex as the child.

On the question of access to a solicitor, I should like to quote what the Rules have to say, because frequently there is misunderstanding on the point. The preamble to the Rules sets out the principle: That every person at any stage of an investigation should be able to communicate and to consult privately with a solicitor. This is so even if he is in custody provided that in such a case no unreasonable delay or hindrance is caused to the processes of investigation or the administration of justice by his doing so. I think that the balance here is right. My right hon. Friend is prepared to consider the position of persons who might be at a particular disadvantage in the interview situation, but he remains doubtful whether a scheme whereby an independent person would be present at any and every interview would be either practicable or justifiable.

I referred to persons who might be at a disadvantage in the interview situation. My hon. Friend has taken a particular interest in the questioning of the mentally handicapped. In the Mentally Retarded Persons (Evidence) Bill that he introduced last Session, he sought to ensure that evidence of statements by mentally handicapped persons should be admissible only if a solicitor was present during the interview. This is open to the objection that I mentioned earlier. The courts already have power to hear argument that an interrogation was improper and to take the necessary action if they find this to be so. To limit the court's discretion, in the way that my hon. Friend proposed in his Bill, would have the effect of excluding relevant evidence in some cases where the court would have found that it had been properly obtained.

However, my right hon. Friend recognises that the questioning of the mentally handicapped presents particular problems. Three years ago, the Home Office drew the attention of chief constables to the need for special care in the questioning of the illiterate and the mentally handicapped. Chief officers recognise the need to treat mentally handicapped persons with special care and compassion. I think that genuine efforts are being made to this end. But there are difficulties, not least arising from the fact that it may not always be easy for a police officer—or, indeed, for us, ourselves, in our own lives—to identify from the start a person who is mentally handicapped, and how serious the degree of mental handicap or abnormality is. I can assure my hon. Friend that my right hon. Friend is considering, in consultation with chief officers of police, whether there is any further guidance he can usefully give to the police.

I have been speaking about the presence of an independent person at police interviews. On a number of occasions in recent years—most notably in the Eleventh Report of the Criminal Law Revision Committee on Evidence—the possibility of tape recording police interviews has been canvassed. My right hon. Friend has appointed a committee to look into the feasibility of an experiment in the tape recording of police interrogations. The committee's membership includes representatives of the Bar Council, the Law Society, the Justices' Clerks' Society, the police and Government Departments concerned. Its first meeting was in April, and it is making good progress, though I am afraid that I cannot say when it will report.

Before concluding, I should like to say a few words about the measures that are taken to secure the observance of the Judges' Rules and to provide remedies for their non-observance, because, of course, the Rules depend for their effectiveness in protecting the rights of the suspect on the extent to which they are observed.

As I have explained, the Judges' Rules concern the admissibility of evidence. It follows that the immediate remedy for any police malpractice in the interview situation lies in the ability of the courts to exclude evidence improperly obtained. Defendants have the opportunity in court to make any complaint that they may have about the way evidence is obtained, and if malpractice is shown to have occurred it will undoubtedly count against the prosecution.

Secondly, there is the system for making and investigating complaints against the police. We have announced our intention to bring legislation forward this Session to provide—

The Question having being proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order

Adjourned at twenty minutes to Twelve o'clock.