Mr. G. E. Mariner (Old Bailey Trial)

Part of Petition – in the House of Commons at 1:02 pm on 22 May 1981.

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Photo of Sir Patrick Mayhew Sir Patrick Mayhew , Royal Tunbridge Wells 1:02, 22 May 1981

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham) for having raised and explained so thoroughly an issue that he properly brought to the House on behalf of his constituent, Mr. Mariner. To express sympathy for Mr. Mariner, as he asked, is much the easiest part of my task today, and one which I fulfil readily.

Mr. Mariner may feel that he has been treated in a manner that falls far short of satisfactory. I hope that it is some mollification to him to know that he still lives in a country where such a matter can be brought to the Parliament of the land and be answered by a Minister of the Crown. I readily acknowledge that it is my responsibility to do that.

I fully appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern about the handling of his constituent's case. I can well understand Mr. Mariner's feelings on discovering that the court had disposed of the assault part of the case against his assailant without conviction and, therefore, without imposing a penalty because Mr. Mariner—through no fault of his own—had not been in court to give evidence. Although it will be of little comfort to Mr. Mariner, I think that the police are also less than satisfied with the outcome.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he said about the Metropolitan Police force in general, and about the officers of Y division who serve his constituency. Those observations will be noted and received with gratitude. I am sure that they are well deserved.

The hon. Gentleman put the case clearly, and I think that it will assist the House if I explain the background. A number of factors combined to produce an unfortunate result. There is a large backlog of cases awaiting trial in the Crown courts. That in itself is a product of the increasing number of crimes committed, especially in the Metropolis and in the South-East. The courts are under pressure.

Secondly, the case in which Mr. Mariner was involved could not be finally set down by the court authorities for trial for some considerable time. In the event, the police were given less than 24 hours in which to warn the witnesses to attend court. I understand from the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis that their efforts to notify Mr. Mariner were not successful. In the absence of Mr. Mariner's evidence, the accused person's plea of not guilty to the assault side of the case was accepted.

I understand also from the Commissioner that the prosecution's request for an adjournment for the case to be tried was refused by the judge, but that before disposing of the case the judge commented that if a conviction had been secured the sentence that he might have thought appropriate for that offence would have made little difference to the total penalty imposed in respect of the other offences to which the accused had already pleaded guilty, in respect of which he was sentenced to a total of two years' imprisonment. From this I deduce that a concurrent sentence would probably have been imposed so that the man would have served no more, or little more, than two years in all.

The judge also refused an application by counsel for the prosecution for compensation to be granted to Mr. Mariner in respect of the attempted burglary and the injury that he sustained. In doing so, however, he made no criticism of the police for the failure to bring Mr. Mariner to court. These matters of judicial discretion are entirely for the court to consider and decide. It would not be appropriate for me to make any comment on them.

As hon. Members are aware, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has no power to investigate complaints against the police. However, Parliament has provided for an independent system of investigation of complaints made against the police as a safeguard against the Executive leaning, for example, upon a proper investigation of matters that might prove to be embarrassing. I am certain that that is a right and proper piece of legislation for Parliament to have passed.

Under the Police Act 1964 and the Police Act 1976 responsibility rests with the chief officer of police concerned, the Director of Public Prosecutions where the complaint might involve a possible criminal offence, and the Police Complaints Board. Accordingly, as the hon. Gentleman has said, when he wrote to the Home Secretary complaining on Mr. Mariner's behalf about the Metropolitan Police, he was correctly advised by my noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State of the relevant statutory procedures and advised that he should forward the complaints to the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis. In other words, he was told that the Home Secretary, to whom the hon. Gentleman had naturally written, had no jurisdiction to investigate the matter.

I understand from the Commissioner that the subsequent investigation established that steps had been taken to warn Mr. Mariner to attend court once the date of the trial was made known to the officer in the case, late the previous day. Two officers made three calls at his house during the evening but were unable to obtain a reply. They gained the impression that the house was empty. I have noted what the hon. Gentleman said about none of the neighbours recalling any conversation with a police officer at that time. However, one way or another the officers gained the impression that the house was empty.

On the third visit, it was thought too late to disturb the neighbours with inquiries. The officer considered that to dispose of the matter merely by leaving a note would not have been satisfactory. She decided to call again later but then herself became involved in an arrest and was unable to return. However, she said that she made arrangements for someone to come the following morning. The officer whose duty it was to assign someone to attend Mr. Mariner's house in the morning said that he did so and that the officer concerned reported being unable to gain a response.

I understand that it has not been possible to identify and interview that officer, who was the last officer in the chain, as the assigning officer cannot remember who it was and as the relevant records have been destroyed. There is nothing sinister in that destruction. During the period in question the police station concerned was taking part in a pilot scheme in preparation for the adoption throughout the Metropolitan Police district of a computerised system of recording messages, allocating them to officers to deal with and noting the outcome. Records of those messages and the associated action were kept for 31 days and then destroyed. Their destruction was a design feature of the pilot scheme, but I understand that, as a result of the difficulty experienced in this case, the period of retention has been extended.

I noted the point raised by the hon. Member, that when Mr. Mariner made his first complaint at Enfield police station, that was well within the period of 31 days, during which time, under the operation of the system, those records were retained. Therefore, it must follow, as the hon. Gentleman said, that any record taken by the computer would have been available at that time, had it been consulted. That must follow if the system had operated and if the request had been recorded. I make no bones about that. Therefore, I believe that either it was on the record but was not consulted or it was not on the record. That represents the alternatives which are available. When the matter assumed a more serious aspect for those in authority, once the matter had been taken up by the hon. Gentleman, unfortunately by that time the system had ensured that the records were destroyed. I cannot take the matter further. The hon. Gentleman has made a sound point.

Consequently, in the absence of records, it was only by interviewing all the officers on duty at the police station on the evening in question that the two who visited Mr. Mariner's address were identified. Similarly, the officers who had been on duty the following morning were also interviewed, but it was not possible to establish who, if anyone, had been asked to call on Mr. Mariner. In the circumstances, without evidence it was not possible to prove a disciplinary offence against any individual officer. I understand that.

Consequently, the deputy commissioner considered, as I believe the facts obliged him to do, that no individual officer could be identified as guilty of neglect or other conduct which could be made the subject of disciplinary charges. He so informed the Police Complaints Board in submitting to it the report of the investigation and the supporting papers in the case.

I emphasise that the Police Complaints Board is wholly independent of the Metropolitan Police or of any police body. Its purpose is to provide an independent review of the decision of a chief officer of police as to whether disciplinary action should be taken against any police officers. That is worth emphasising in relation to the concluding remarks of the hon. Gentleman, when he said that he felt that the Police Complaints Board could have said that it was sorry. In the correspondence cited by the hon. Gentleman, Sir George Ogden made it clear on behalf of the complaints board that he understood and sympathised with the feelings of Mr. Mariner. However, it was not for the Police Complaints Board to say that it was sorry because it is merely an investigating body and totally independent of the police. I hope that that clears up that aspect.

The Police Complaints Board agreed with the deputy commissioner's view, and the deputy chairman subsequently wrote fully to the hon. Gentleman. Both the deputy commissioner and the board very much regretted that circumstances should have combined to produce a situation in which Mr. Mariner was bound to feel that he was treated with less than adequate understanding and consideration and, moreover, that justice had not fully been done. From what I have said I hope that it is plain that I share their regrets. I regret that a combination of circumstances, the precise nature of which will now never be identified, resulted in Mr. Mariner having a perfectly proper sense of grievance and that the case of alleged assault went, so to speak, by default.

But, however regrettable that may be, there is no way now to reopen the matter. Nor, I am afraid, is there anything more that I can say about the outcome of the investigation into Mr. Mariner's complaints against the police. By reason of the independent statutory complaints procedure, the Home Secretary has no power to intervene in decisions reached by the chief officer, the Police Complaints Board or the Director of Public Prosecutions as the result of investigation of a complaint; nor would it be right for my right hon. Friend to comment on a decision taken by the Police Complaints Board in relation to an individual complaint.

I turn now to the other main aspect of the matters raised by the hon. Gentleman—the question of securing some improvement in the arrangements for listing cases in the criminal courts, bearing in mind the need to warn witnesses. As the hon. Gentleman fairly acknowledged, listing is within the responsibilities of the Department of the Lord Chancellor and not the Home Office. I understand that in the Central Criminal Court—the Old Bailey, the court concerned in Mr. Mariner's case—the date of hearing of a heavy case is usually fixed in advance and all involved are notified. That cannot, however, be done in all cases without considerable loss of court time, and, of course, the more court time that is lost the more time is taken for individual cases to reach their hearing date.

Most cases, therefore, appear in a warned list a certain time before the hearing, and those involved are thus put on notice that the hearing is imminent and that they may be called to attend court at any time in the period of warning. Here I should say that I understand that the police concerned in Mr. Mariner's case undertood at the time of such notice that there were to be pleas of guilty to all the charges, so they took no steps further to warn Mr. Mariner for his future attendance at court.