Yorkshire Ripper (Investigations)

– in the House of Commons at 3:36 pm on 19th January 1982.

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Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border 3:36 pm, 19th January 1982

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the review of the Yorkshire Ripper case carried out, at my request, by Mr. Lawrence Byford, one of Her Majesty's inspectors of constabulary.

I asked him to report on any lessons which might be learned from the conduct of the investigation and which should be made known to police forces generally. Mr Byford was assisted in his review by the external advisory team set up in November 1980. He was also able to take account of views put to him about this tragic case by relatives of the victims, who greatly appreciated the opportunity to voice their misgivings.

I have now received and considered Mr. Byford's report, and I am extremely grateful to him for it. I should like to let the House know of its main conclusions and recommendations. A more detailed summary has been placed in the Library.

It is apparent from the report that there were major errors of judgment by the police and some inefficiencies in the conduct of the operation at various levels. In particular, excessive credence was given to the letters and tape from a man claiming responsibility for the series of murders and signing himself "Jack the Ripper". Another serious handicap to the investigation was the ineffectiveness of the major incident room which became overloaded with unprocessed information. With hindsight, it is now clear that if these errors and inefficiencies had not occurred Sutcliffe would have been identified as a prime suspect sooner than he was. Mr. Byford's report concludes that there is little doubt that he should have been arrested earlier, on the facts associated with his various police interviews.

I remind the House that the Ripper case gave rise to the largest criminal investigation ever conducted in this country, imposing a great strain on all concerned. It would have been surprising if in this uprecedented situation there were no mistakes. What we now have to do is to respond constructively to the considerable experience gained in the course of it in order to ensure that future investigations of crimes such as this are carried out as effectively and quickly as possible.

I turn, therefore, to the lessons for the future and to the recommendations made by Mr. Byford. As will be seen from the statement in the Library, they deal comprehensively with the management requirements of the investigation of a series of major crimes, the training of senior detectives and personnel working in major incident rooms, the command of investigations involving a number of crimes which cross force boundaries, the harnessing for such investigations of the best detective and forensic science skills in the country, and the use of computer technology.

I welcome Mr. Byford's recommendations on those matters. They are already being followed up with representatives of the police service. They provide valuable guidelines for the operational conduct of very large criminal investigations in police forces generally. They will require a constructive commitment at all levels of the police service.

Photo of Mr Roy Hattersley Mr Roy Hattersley , Birmingham Sparkbrook

First, I thank the Home Secretary for making this statement today. It contains matters that the House will consider to be both distressing and distasteful, but, in the light of the report, discussion of them today is unavoidable.

The House will note—I quote from the summary of the report—that the vast majority of the officers involved in the case worked diligently and conscientiously. We must all take comfort from that. We also take comfort from the fact that the report makes no attempt to protect the individuals involved or to excuse the failures of the service. However, that being said, some facts are tragically inescapable. The summary of the report, a copy of which the Home Secretary was kind enough to give me in advance, makes three matters clear. There was inefficiency and serious error and the incident room involved was ineffective. Many senior officers proved incapable of the efficient discharge of the duties that were placed upon them.

The Home Secretary quotes the summary as to the results of those failures. He said that Peter Sutcliffe should have been recognised as the prime suspect much earlier and should have been arrested much earlier. In the light of that, I must ask the Home Secretary a stark question Is it not a fact that those failures resulted in the deaths of women who should have been saved from the awful fate that overcame them?

Since the answer to that question must, I deeply regret, be "Yes", I ask the Home Secretary to take three courses of action that are necessary for the re-establishment of confidence in the police forces of Britain. I ask him to promise three things. First, he promised in his statement to follow up—those were his words—the criticisms of the police force contained in the report. We need far more than that from him today. We need a much stronger statement of his intention. Will he promise the House here and now to take whatever action is necessary to remedy the faults that the report describes?

Secondly, we need assurances from the Home Secretary—which I ask him now to give—that he will immediately take whatever action is necessary to avoid similar errors in the detection of serious crime in police forces outside West Yorkshire. I fear that the report will reverberate throughout Britain and undermine confidence in other areas as well as in the one to which the report refers.

Thirdly, what action is being taken about the officers who were clearly responsible for the errors that prolonged the tragedy? Are they still in charge of the investigation of serious crime within their area? If that were the case, the House and the country would regard it as wholly intolerable.

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for recognising that it was important that an oral statement should be made to the House. I took the view, somewhat exceptionally in such cases, that it was essential that I should do so. I also took the view that it was quite essential that I published in the Library a summary of the report which held back nothing and which did not try to cover anything up. That was most important in all the circumstances and whatever may be the other criticisms of what has happened, that will be recognised as a fact.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me a question that can never wholly be answered, but from what I said I must accept that if Sutcliffe had been arrested earlier there would be those who were subsequently killed who would not have been. One cannot avoid that. With the benefit of hindsight, one must accept it.

I turn to the other points that the right hon. Gentleman makes about the future. First, he asked that we should take whatever steps are necessary to improve the position in the future. This morning I discussed the report with the leader of the West Yorkshire council and with the appointed members of the police authority. I am grateful to them for having come to London today to discuss the matters with me. They will have a meeting with their police authority. Together we are determined to learn all the lessons from the failures and we are determined to ensure that the efficiency of the force in such matters is improved in the future. We are all perfectly clear about that and we all accept immediately the responsibility that that places upon us.

As to the need to ensure that the lessons are learnt by other forces, it was right to supplement the report made internally by the deputy chief constable with a report by the inspector of constabulary, because there are wider lessons to be learnt for the police service as a whole. That is why I asked Mr. Byford, with a team of advisers, to consider the matter. They have spent five months doing so and they have uncovered much in that time, as is proper. My purpose was to make absolutely certain that the lessons should be properly learnt on this occasion and should be transmitted to all the police services in Britain. Through the inspectors of constabulary I intend to ensure, with the chief constables, that all the lessons will be learned. Less than that would not do justice to an important report and to much hard work from all those concerned.

Photo of Mr Roy Hattersley Mr Roy Hattersley , Birmingham Sparkbrook

I am sorry to press the Home Secretary on my third question, not least because I accept with great appreciation the forthright answers that he gave to the first two questions. However, he will recall that I asked him whether the officers responsible are still in charge of the investigation of serious crime in the area. That is a most important question, and I hope that the Home Secretary will answer me now.

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

I could not guarantee an answer in every case. It would, be wrong for me to do so without checking all the facts. However, I can assure the right hon. Gentlemen that the chief constable and all those concerned are determined to learn the lessons. I shall transmit the right hon. Gentleman's point to the chief constable. It would be wrong for me to respond positively to everything that the right hon. Gentleman said.

Photo of Mr Richard Wainwright Mr Richard Wainwright , Colne Valley

The Liberal Party is also glad that the Home Secretary has brought the Byford report directly to the Floor of the House which, together with West Yorkshire's Sampson report, illuminates the fatal lack of computer power that could have directed towards Sutcliffe months earlier the enormous amount of information that was put on pieces of paper. Yorkshire Television viewers saw those pieces of paper being sifted over in enormous numbers of shoe boxes in the incident room.

Does the Home Secretary agree that the full and continuous use of up-to-date technology will not be provided by ratepayers to the police unless each police authority can reassure itself continuously that its police force is capable and willing to use technology simply for the detection of serious, specific crimes and not for any other purpose? Does the Home Secretary agree that he could take steps to ensure that there is a consistently better relationship between police authorities and police forces to ensure that information provided by modern technology—which should certainly be made available to police forces—will not be used for the invasion of human rights?

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

I take the hon. Gentleman's point about the importance of the role of police authorities. I have stressed consistently the importance of a close relationship between police authorities and police forces in Britain. Equally, I accept that information that was readily available was not used to the best advantage because of failures in the incident room. I also accept that we are still learning in the police service—as, indeed, throughout the nation—the best use to make of computers and modern technology. We have lessons to learn from this and I must ensure that we learn them.

There is always a conflict of interest, in all problems concerning computer technology, as to what information is given and how it is used. A balance has to be struck in regard to the police service.

Several Hon. Members:


Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

Order. I propose to allow 20 minutes for questions on the statement. If hon. Members are brief and to the point, that should be sufficient time to accommodate all hon. Members who have been rising.

Photo of Mr Marcus Fox Mr Marcus Fox , Shipley

During the long investigation, did the police authority give its full support to the chief constable?

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

My hon. Friend is particularly interested in this matter, having a constituency in the area concerned. The police authority, both before the election, when control changed hands, and since, has given the force the fullest possible support, morally and financially. It has put a considerable strain on the force but it has done its best to help in every way it can.

Photo of Mr Joseph Dean Mr Joseph Dean , Leeds West

Will the Home Secretary accept that the report and his statement on it throw no new light whatever on the subject? What is contained in the report and the statement has been said by the people and by the media in West Yorkshire for the past 12 months, and the scars left by these events and by the savage murders still linger in the area. Will he accept that the scars are so deep that women are still reluctant to go out in certain areas of West Yorkshire? Will he give an undertaking that the police reorganisation will be examined with a view to providing people with the maximum protection that they are entitled to expect?

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

We all appreciate the problems which have been created for the hon. Members in the area concerned and for their constituents, and I hope that I have discharged our responsibility to them by setting up the inquiry and by asking the inspector of constabulary to supplement the internal review by the West Yorkshire force in order to get at the roots of all the problems. I believe that my statement, and the stark nature of much that I have said, will show that we have gone to the root of the problems. It is now for the police service in West Yorkshire and for the police authority to act on them. That was fully accepted by the appointed members and the leader of the West Yorkshire county council when I saw them this morning. Everyone concerned must ensure that the lessons are learned fully for the future.

Photo of Dr John Blackburn Dr John Blackburn , Dudley West

Will my right hon. Friend, in reflecting on the report of Her Majesty's inspector, always hold fast to the cardinal rule of British law that a man is presumed to be innocent until he is found guilty? That is natural British justice. Many hon. Members found it offensive, after the arrest of Sutcliffe, that there were continual appearances on television by police officers who were responsible for the arrest. If a charge is made, a statement should be given to that effect. Will my right hon. Friend agree that at that point the whole case is sub judice?

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

It is true to say that many statements were made at the time of the arrest of Mr. Sutcliffe which reflected on what was said by the police and what was said and done by the media. Everyone concerned learned from those statements and I do not wish to add to them this afternoon.

Photo of Mr Jack Ashley Mr Jack Ashley , Stoke-on-Trent South

Although I welcome the constructive proposals and hope that they will be accepted by the police, what will the Home Secretary do if any police force is not prepared to give the constructive commitment for which he is asking?

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

I believe that the commitment will be given, and it is most important that it should be. Under the Police Act 1964, there is a safeguard. The Home Secretary has a right, through the inspectors of constabulary, to make proposals to various police forces if they do not carry out their duties to the standards expected of them. I believe that my action in asking Mr. Byford, as inspector of constabulary, to inquire into the case, and the way in which the report has been accepted by all concerned in West Yorkshire, shows that our system is right, and we must follow it through.

Photo of Mr Jonathan Aitken Mr Jonathan Aitken , Thanet East

Does my right hon. Friend expect any senior police officers in West Yorkshire to resign or to be moved as a result of the report and, if not, why not?

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

Under the 1964 Act, I could take a drastic step in regard to the chief constable who, of course, is operationally responsible for the whole affair, but that would be only if I were satisfied and could establish that to do so would be in the interests of efficiency. In making that judgment I would have to satisfy myself not simply on the basis of one failure in a force area, however serious and important, but having regard to the general performance of the force as a whole over a period of time and its likely performance in the future. I must make it clear that I am not so satisfied.

Photo of Mr Edward Lyons Mr Edward Lyons , Bradford West

Will the Home Secretary agree that the Byford recommendations make it clear that scarcely a police force in the country is adequately trained or equipped to deal with an inquiry on the scale of that required as a result of the activities of my constituent, Mr. Sutcliffe? In those circumstances, is not there some responsibility on people much closer to the top, much higher than the West Yorkshire police force? In addition, in view of the urgent need for training in management techniques, when will it be implemented for senior officers?

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

These are lessons that we have been learning. If I may say so, I and my predecessor as Home Secretary have done a great deal in recent years to bring to the notice of police officers, through the inspectors of constabulary, the need for training in all these fields. Under the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) and myself, the Home Office has adopted a very much more positive role in all these matters. It is right to do so and it will continue to do so in the future.

Photo of Mr Gary Waller Mr Gary Waller , Brighouse and Spenborough

Nearly all the murders took place within 10 miles of my constituency. I congratulate my right hon. Friend unreservedly on his statement, and on the fact that he is placing in the Library a summary of Mr. Byford's report. In order to ensure that public confidence in the police persists, it is essential that it should be clear to the whole of the public that there has been no attempt at a cover-up of the sad deficiencies revealed by the inquiry.

Can my right hon. Friend say whether it is true, as the internal report to the police committee by Mr. Sampson suggested, that at the time of the Sutcliffe inquiries no suitable computer system existed? Some of those who have an interest in information technology find that claim difficult to believe.

Will my right hon. Friend ensure, in relation to any future inquiries of a similar nature in any part of the country, that police forces will have access to computer facilities which are suitable to ensure that facts of the son which could have led to the apprehension of Mr. Sutcliffe emerge from the plethora of irrelevant information?

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks about the need to have no cover-up. Afer the publication of the statement—and, indeed, the summary which I have placed in the Library—no such charge could be fairly levelled.

It is true that we have yet to develop successfully the computer facilities that are necessary for use in the police service. Those facilities had not been sufficiently developed at the time in question, and that may be a criticism of all concerned. For the future, we have to ensure not only that computers are available but that they are used to the best advantage.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse , Pontefract and Castleford

Will the Home Secretary now confirm to the House that he has already taken action in putting a ban on the promotion chances of senior officers of the West Yorkshire police force? If that is the case, does that ban include officers who have not been involved in the Sutcliffe case?

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

I have not exactly put on a ban. I have represented to the West Yorkshire police authority that there are certain officers in the force whom I would not be prepared to agree should go forward for promotion to assistant chief constable. I believe that to be a correct decision. There are other officers in senior positions, who were not necessarily involved in the inquiry, to whom no such bar would apply when the question of promotion prospects arose.

Photo of Mr John Stokes Mr John Stokes , Halesowen and Stourbridge

In view of this serious report and other allied matters, does my right hon. Friend consider that the time has now come for the police force to recruit and train an officer class of the highest educational standard, in the same way as the Armed Forces do, rather than depend entirely on promotion from within the ranks?

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

I hope that what we are seeking to do, and what we have done, to improve the career prospects in the police service, together with the improvements we have made in the training facilities in the service, not just during my time at the Home Office but before, will improve the standing and efficiency of the police service in this country. That is what we are all seeking to do and I hope that by these means we can achieve it.

Photo of Mr Ken Woolmer Mr Ken Woolmer , Batley and Morley

Does the Home Secretary accept that the comments of those who have followed this matter for a long time now are based not on any inherent criticism of the police but in recognition of the stress and strain placed on them and on the victims and their families? Having said that, is he aware that anything less than the very fullest publication of the report will not satisfy the public of West Yorkshire? Until one has had time to look at it, it is impossible to know whether the summary which has been published meets that requirement.

Secondly, could the right hon. Gentleman comment on whether or not the police authority was properly able to carry out its responsibility on behalf of the public and whether, in the event, the police authority did carry out the kind of questioning and the kind of responsibility that it ought to have done?

Thirdly, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the public, however unfortunate this may be for the officers involved, will expect the responsibility for any errors properly to be borne and that if the outcome appears to be that, when millions of pounds have been spent and many people tragically murdered, the responsibility of these officers is not seen publicly to have been carried out, people will be seriously concerned?

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

Yes, and of course some of the matters to which the hon. Gentleman referred are inevitably matters which concern both the police authority and myself. That is why I thought it right this morning to ask to speak to the appointed members of the police authority and—I was most grateful to him for coming—the leader of the West Yorkshire County Council.

The hon. Gentleman asks whether those people will have the fullest information about the report. I have made it clear—I made it clear when the inquiry was originally set up and Mr. Byford was asked to produce the report—that because it was a report from an inspector of constabulary to the Home Secretary, it would have to enjoy the normal confidentiality which such reports have always had, and be written on that basis. However, I have said to the police authority this morning that, in addition to the very full and clear summary that has been placed in the Library, I have agreed that the Chief Inspector of Constabulary and Mr. Byford himself will be prepared to answer any questions put orally to them by the police authority, concerning the efficiency of the force. They have seen them this morning and they will be prepared to go and answer any questions concerning the efficiency of the force put by the police authority in West Yorkshire. I do not think the police authority could be given a fairer or fuller opportunity than this to discharge its duties.

Photo of Mr Martin Flannery Mr Martin Flannery , Sheffield, Hillsborough

Does the Home Secretary agree with me that, no matter what computer facilities existed or did not exist, the number of leads to this man, who was interviewed about nine times, was so massive that there must have been culpable negligence in not following them up and arresting him much earlier? Does he further agree that this man was not caught in West Yorkshire? He was actually caught and brought to the local police station in my constituency, in South Yorkshire, where all the women were as terrified as those in West Yorkshire? Would he finally accept it from me that if some major heads in West Yorkshire do not roll as a result of this, and if that police force is left undisturbed at the top level as a result of this inquiry, there will be grave disquiet throughout the whole of West and South Yorkshire?

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

I do not think I could go along with the phrase "culpable negligence". That would be a mistake. What I can agree is that, with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear, as I said in my statement, that if errors and inefficiencies had not occurred Sutcliffe would have been identified sooner as a prime suspect. There is no doubt about that.

As to where he was arrested, all I can say about that is that he was arrested, as the hon. Gentleman says, in his constituency

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

That is perfectly true, but many of the great criminals in history have been arrested by sheer chance. As for where it was done, I do not mind whether it was in the hon. Gentleman's constituency or anywhere else. The great thing is that the man was arrested and was brought to justice.

Photo of Mr Thomas Torney Mr Thomas Torney , Bradford South

In view of the great number of women who were murdered and the long, long time that constituents of mine were terrorised, does the Home Secretary agree that either he or some inspector of constabulary or somebody in high authority should have stepped into West Yorkshire, particularly in view of this report which is now showing inefficiencies in the West Yorkshire force, to ensure that outside assistance—the best brains in the country, in fact—was brought into West Yorkshire to take control of the inquiry long before this actually happened? May I remind the right hon. Gentleman that outside help was brought in only when I raised the matter here?

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

Order. The length of questions is going to prevent my calling some hon. Members.

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

What the hon. Gentleman says is not quite true, though, as always, there is some substance of truth in what he says. In November 1979, before the hon. Gentleman raised the matter, at the invitation of the chief constable, Commander Nevill and a detective chief superintendent of the Metropolitan Police examined the investigation, and in January 1980 made recommendations to the chief constable. In November 1980, after, it is perfectly true, the hon. Gentleman and others had raised the matter—I do not object to that; after all, if I am not here to respond to what Members of Parliament and others say to me, what on earth am I here for?—I did respond properly to what the hon. Gentleman had said, and I suggested to the inspector of constabulary, Mr. Byford, that we bring in outside people.

In November 1980, through Mr. Byford and Mr. Gregory, we brought in Mr. Emment, the deputy chief constable of the Thames Valley Policy, Mr. Sloan, the national co-ordinator of regional crime squads, Mr. Gerty, assistant chief constable of the West Midlands Police, Mr. Harvey, commander, Metropolitan Police and Assistant (Crime) to Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Constabulary, and Mr. Kind, director of the Home Office Central Research Establishment, Aldermaston. We brought all those people in, and I think it was right to do so. This House recommended that I do it, and I responded to that.

As for the final arrest, although it was certainly by chance, it was also to some extent as the result of good police work on the beat.

Photo of Mr David Ginsburg Mr David Ginsburg , Dewsbury

As well as criticism, there is the question of praise, as the Home Secretary has just said. Can he confirm that there is some reference in the Byford report to the role of Sergeant Rigg of Dewsbury whose decisive action led to the proper investigations into the crime being undertaken?

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

No, I am afraid that I shall not refer to individual officers. If I did so, I would get into a difficult area and that is exactly what I should not do. What I can say—it is something I neglected to say to the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley)—is that many officers, detectives and others worked with great dedication for an enormous number of hours and had great strain placed on them and on their families in pursuing this inquiry. I think that they deserve our thanks, despite the fact that there are some criticisms as well.

Photo of Dr Shirley Summerskill Dr Shirley Summerskill , Halifax

Will the Home Secretary bear in mind the fact that one of the Ripper's victims was a constituent of mine? Will he clarify his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Morley (Mr. Woolmer)? Am I correct in understanding the Home Secretary to say that he will not be publishing even a summary of the main conclusions and recommendations in Mr. Byford's report? It is inadequate simply to place the summary in the Library. The constituents in areas where the Ripper's victims lived, and the entire population, should be able to see and study that distressing and worrying report.

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

I am anxious to be as forthcoming as possible. I thought that by placing the report in the Library I would ensure that it would become widely available. I believe that the report is published, but if it is not I shall look into the matter. I have placed the summary in the Library and I shall ensure that it is available widely.

In addition, I have made it clear that the police authority can ask oral questions of the Chief Inspector of Constabulary and Mr. Byford. If, by placing the summary in the Library and making my statement today, I have not given the fullest information to the public and the press I shall ensure that I do so.