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Sub-Post Office, Tottenham (Shooting Incident)

Order of the Day – in the House of Commons at 10:59 am on 15th June 1984.

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Photo of Gerald Kaufman Gerald Kaufman Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office) 10:59 am, 15th June 1984

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he will make a statement on the shooting of two unarmed persons at a north London sub-post office yesterday.

Photo of Mr Leon Brittan Mr Leon Brittan , Richmond (Yorks)

The House will understand that, although I have had a preliminary report from the police on this incident, the case is still at an early stage of investigation. It would, of course, be improper for me to say anything that might prejudice any subsequent proceedings.

The facts are that, as a result of information which they received, the police had reason to expect a robbery or other criminal attack on a sub-post office in Seven Sisters road, Tottenham. Their information was based on observation of the premises for a period of some days. On the morning of Thursday 14 June two armed police officers accompanied the member of staff opening the premises at the beginning of the day in order to take up their duties there. On entering the building they discovered that it had been broken into. Two men were inside. There was a struggle.

It would be wrong for me to comment in detail at this stage on what followed, but in the struggle two men whom the police were attempting to arrest were shot. Both of them were seriously injured. I understand that a total of three shots were fired. Both officers used their firearms.

The Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis has confirmed to me that the firearms were issued after the proper procedures of considering whether to do so had been fully complied with. The House is well aware of the heavy responsibility that we place upon police officers when they are required to be armed in the course of their duty. That means that when firearms are used by the police the matter must be regarded very seriously and fully inquired into. In this case the Commissioner has decided to appoint a senior officer, wholly independent of the robbery squad, from which the two officers came, to inquire into the circumstances in which firearms were issued and used on this occasion. His report will go to the Director of Public Prosecutions, as will a separate report into whether offences were committed by those arrested. An interim report of the case will go to the Director of Public Prosecutions at the earliest practicable opportunity.

Photo of Gerald Kaufman Gerald Kaufman Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

Can the Home Secretary inform the House of the medical condition of the two men who were shot? Can he say whether the Metropolitan police properly observed the rules on the issue and use of firearms, which state specifically that a weapon is to be used only in cases of absolute necessity, for example, if the officer or the person he is protecting is attacked by a person with a firearm or other deadly weapon and he cannot otherwise reasonably protect himself or give protection"? Press reports do not show that such conditions prevailed. A Scotland Yard spokesman is quoted as saying, "The threat was there." But the belief in the presence of a threat is not the same as the absolute necessity specifically laid down in the Metropolitan police rules.

Last December, in the light of the Waldorf shooting, the Home Secretary said in a statement that an oral warning should be given. Was such an oral warning given? The Home Secretary said in the same statement that a report by the commissioner had revealed shortcomings in the selection and training of officers for firearms duties which would be put right. Is he satisfied that those shortcomings have been put right? He also said in that statement that what had occurred plainly showed the need for change and that it was essential that such change should now take place. Is he satisfied that that change has taken place?

Even if people are involved in criminal activity, there cannot, except in the most extreme circumstances, be any justification for shooting them down. This morning the Home Secretary announced a police inquiry. I must say that a police inquiry of itself will not satisfy public concern on this matter. In the light of the clear failure of measures taken after the shooting of Stephen Waldorf, the Opposition ask the Government to set up an independent inquiry into the issue and use of firearms by the police.

Photo of Mr Leon Brittan Mr Leon Brittan , Richmond (Yorks)

It is not correct to say that all that I have announced is a police inquiry. I announced an investigation by a senior police officer unconnected with the robbery squad, from which the two officers came. It will not have escaped the House's attention that I said that not only will there be a report to the Director of Public Prosecutions, who will consider carefully the position that arises in the light of that report, but that there will also be an interim report to enable the Director of Public Prosecutions to consider the matter at an early stage with a view to deciding whether further action is required.

As to the question whether I am satisfied that the rules on the issue of firearms were complied with, the answer I have given is yes. As to whether I am satisfied that the rules on the use of firearms were complied with, the answer is that that matter will be the subject of investigation, and it would be wrong for me or, if I may dare to suggest it, anyone else to rush to judgment on that question on the basis of press reports or any other report. If one takes this matter as seriously as I and the country would wish it to be taken, one should not be beguiled into making comments on the basis of necessarily incomplete press reports. The same applies to the question whether warnings were given.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the selection and training of police officers in the use of firearms, and the need for change in that area which I expressed after the Waldorf incident. I am satisfied that the action which I announced in response to that incident to improve selection and training will go ahead in the way that I described.

As to the right hon. Gentleman's first point, I am not in a position to add anything further to what is known about the medical condition of the two men.

Photo of Mr Norman Atkinson Mr Norman Atkinson , Tottenham

The House will agree that this is not the occasion to discuss the details of the incident. However, will the Home Secretary confirm in clear terms that the criterion by which guns are issued to police officers is the protection of life, not the protection of property? The Home Secretary said that the two officers were members of the robbery squad. Will he tell the House whether it is normal for members of the robbery squad to be issued with weapons, unlike the usual, routine under which members of the special branch are issued with firearms?

In the light of this incident and a series of other incidents recently, is the Home Secretary aware that there is anxiety that there seems to be a general drift — perhaps an unthinking drift, and certainly a casual one — into the use of arms? It is the Home Secretary's responsibility to reiterate to the House the principles that are guiding Sir Kenneth Newman on the use of firearms by Metropolitan police officers.

Photo of Mr Leon Brittan Mr Leon Brittan , Richmond (Yorks)

I am happy to reiterate Sir Kenneth Newman's principles and to assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no question of either Sir Kenneth Newman or myself supporting or allowing any general drift into the regular use of arms. Both the guidelines and the further announcement which I have made are designed to ensure that firearms are issued only under the tightest control and in the rarest circumstances.

The hon. Gentleman asked about protection of property or persons. It would not be right for me to paraphrase the guidelines, which are in the Library, but it is significant that a specific reference is made in them to the lawful purpose of preventing loss or further loss of life by any other means. I welcome the opportunity to reaffirm that point.

Photo of Hon. Anthony Berry Hon. Anthony Berry , Enfield, Southgate

How many attacks on post office staff have occurred in recent years, and how many of those attacks have involved the use of weapons, especially firearms?

Photo of Mr Leon Brittan Mr Leon Brittan , Richmond (Yorks)

I do not have the full details for recent years, but it is significant to note that, in the week ending 2 June, there were 12 attacks on post office staff or premises. In eight of those 12 attacks the assailants carried firearms. It will come as no surprise to the House to know that the chairman of the Post Office, Mr. Dearing, contacted my office today to express his warm appreciation of the police response to the increase in the number of armed robberies at post offices.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Although we are grateful for the Home Secretary's statement and are aware of the information that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has just confirmed, which is that armed attacks on post offices and sub-post offices are, sadly, a regular feature of life in all our cities and a matter with which we should deal, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm that the police inquiry—the report of which will go to the Director of Public Prosecutions — will deal only with criminal matters and will not produce for public consumption, to allay concern, an answer as to whether the guidelines were followed and a warning was given? Those matters must inevitably be considered in another report, which should come as soon as possible to the House.

Photo of Mr Leon Brittan Mr Leon Brittan , Richmond (Yorks)

I am conscious of the hon. Gentleman's concern about these matters, but I am sure that, in view of the seriousness of the matter, the right course is to conduct a thorough investigation into the facts in relation to possible charges against any of those arrested and the use of firearms. I believe that that is being done in a responsible way and that it is right that the Director of Public Prosecutions should be the recipient of both reports. It is right also that he should have an interim report so that he can consider whether any further action is called for.

Photo of Mr Peter Bruinvels Mr Peter Bruinvels , Leicester East

Instead of the Opposition casting their usual doubts over police actions in this incident, should we not ask what those people were doing in the sub-post office in the first place?

Photo of Mr Leon Brittan Mr Leon Brittan , Richmond (Yorks)

That is one of the questions into which one of the two reports will go. It is appropriate when an undoubtedly serious incident has occurred for both aspects of the matter to be looked at responsibly. I do not propose to rush into judgment, and I counsel all others to abstain from doing so.

Photo of Frank Dobson Frank Dobson Shadow Minister (Health)

As one who deplores the use of firearms by criminals and does not welcome the use of firearms by the police, I ask the Home Secretary to tell the House what steps he has taken since he became Home Secretary to reduce, by legislation or police practice, the access of criminals to firearms.

Photo of Mr Leon Brittan Mr Leon Brittan , Richmond (Yorks)

Of course it would be intensely desirable to reduce access to firearms, but, in considering this matter, it is important to bear in mind whether any of the suggestions for doing so would achieve the purpose for which they were put forward.

Photo of Mr Harry Greenway Mr Harry Greenway , Ealing North

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the time has come for a broader inquiry into the general security of post offices in London? Is he aware that in my constituency one post office has been robbed violently four times over a period of months—one incident involved armed robbery—and the post office has, therefore, been shut for many months and its amenities lost to the people of the area? Will my right hon. and learned Friend look into this whole question?

Photo of Mr Leon Brittan Mr Leon Brittan , Richmond (Yorks)

That is really a matter for the chairman of the Post Office. I am sure that he will wish to take account of my hon. Friend's point. In any event, I shall draw those matters to his attention.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South and Morley

I agree with the Home Secretary that the two reports should be made by the Metropolitan police and passed to the Director of Public Prosecutions. Time is needed to conduct those inquiries, and it would be foolish of hon. Members to believe, on the basis of newspaper reports, that they know the full facts. I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman about that point. Will the two reports be brought to the attention of the House? Will they be made available publicly so that we can discuss them at some stage?

In view of what my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) have said and the fact that in Northern Ireland — I note that the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) is in the Chamber—post offices are robbed nearly every day of the week, so that robberies become a way of life with criminals taking it as normal that they should be armed., should there not be a full inquiry into this trend? Those are the matters about which my hon. Friends are concerned—not the nonsense about petty party politics which we heard from the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels).

Photo of Mr Leon Brittan Mr Leon Brittan , Richmond (Yorks)

I did not hear any petty party politics expressed by any of my hon. Friends. The right hon. Gentleman has raised issues whose nature we shall need to consider at a later stage. For the moment, I am sure that the serious investigation that is occurring is the right course to follow. The right hon. Gentleman knows from his experience that reports of the Director of Public Prosecutions are not published. If prosecutions flow from reports, the matters fall entirely within the public domain.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley , Eltham

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that the House welcomes the fact that he has been able to answer this private notice question? I believe that most people will agree with him that he cannot make further detailed comment on the specific incident that gave rise to the question and the statement.

I follow the point made by the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) and ask for a serious discussion in the House when we have sufficient information on the two separate, but important, issues of armed robberies — we have noted the sad case of a shopkeeper who was killed for a small sum of money—and the reactions of the police in such circumstances. I believe that the issues are separate, although linked, and are regarded as important by both sides of the House. We should use future opportunities to go into those issues to ascertain what can be done.

Photo of Mr Leon Brittan Mr Leon Brittan , Richmond (Yorks)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will take note of what my hon. Friend has said. There is no question of the serious concern about armed robberies and the circumstances in which firearms are issued to and used by the police. The guidelines have been considered carefully. In the light of the conclusion of the Waldorf case, my statement about the training and selection of officers who are equipped with firearms showed that the Government regard both those aspects as serious matters that must be treated seriously.

Photo of Mr Robert Maclennan Mr Robert Maclennan , Caithness and Sutherland

Although I accept that the inquiry must be referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions so that he can consider whether to proceed with criminal prosecutions, is the Home Secretary saying that the inquiry will cover matters of discipline and training, which are not for the Director of Public Prosecutions? How are those matters to be published and made available for consideration by the House?

Photo of Mr Leon Brittan Mr Leon Brittan , Richmond (Yorks)

Of course, the Director of Public Prosecutions will not be asked to consider matters that fall beyond the question of prosecution. As the hon. Gentleman knows from his understanding of the procedures, separate opportunities will arise at a later stage to consider other matters. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, with his understanding of the law, will appreciate the fact that the urgent and first task is to investigate the facts and to consider whether it is appropriate to bring any prosecutions.

Photo of Gerald Kaufman Gerald Kaufman Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

The Home Secretary says that we must not rely on necessarily incomplete press reports, and of course that is so. Indeed, that is why we asked him to make a statement to the House today. In that way, Parliament and the country could be given more accurate and authoritative information than is compiled by the press. But the Home Secretary's response has told us little, if anything, that we did not already know, even though he has had a full day in which to obtain information that of necessity is denied to the rest of us.

Will the Home Secretary reply to the questions that I put to him, which he is capable of replying to now without any further consideration? First, were the shortcomings in the selection and training of officers for firearms duties, to which he referred on 23 December 1983, put right? He has had six months in which to tell us whether they have been.

Photo of Mr Tristan Garel-Jones Mr Tristan Garel-Jones , Watford

My right hon. and learned Friend has answered that point.

Photo of Gerald Kaufman Gerald Kaufman Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

The Home Secretary has not answered it, or even begun to do so. All he has done is to respond with his usual ineffable complacency to all the questions put to him.

Secondly, on 23 December 1983, the Secretary of State said that what had occurred in the Waldorf shooting plainly indicated the need for change, and that it was essential that such change should now take place. That is what he said six months ago. Has that change taken place?

I ask my third question knowing that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has had a full day in which to give us the information. Was the oral warning that he said was necessary, whenever possible, given by the police? He should know the answer to that after 24 hours or more. Today, there have been requests for an inquiry from both sides of the House. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has spoken about a report to the Director of Public Prosecutions, but will it be published or will it be a report that is used internally? If it is not published, it will not be satisfactory and I shall have to repeat my request for an independent inquiry in which these matters can be considered by Parliament and the country.

Photo of Mr Leon Brittan Mr Leon Brittan , Richmond (Yorks)

I am happy to repeat answers that the right hon. Gentleman seems to have been unable to take on board but which every other hon. Member appears to have understood. I have said that the changes in the arrangements for selection and training are taking place.

Photo of Mr Leon Brittan Mr Leon Brittan , Richmond (Yorks)

That is not correct. If the right hon. Gentleman had taken the trouble to look at the statement and had seen the nature of the changes that I have outlined, he would realise that they involve a continuous process and that it is not a one-off thing. From the moment that the statement was made that process commenced. The right hon. Gentleman could not be in any serious doubt about that.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the oral warning, but he must appreciate that whether such a warning was given, in what terms and to whom, is at the very centre of the investigation now taking place. It would be quite wrong of me to attempt to give an off-the-cuff answer. The right hon. Gentleman also asked about the handling of the matter by the DPP, but again he knows perfectly well the procedure with regard to prosecution reports and what happens when they are considered by the DPP. It is just a little unworthy of him to try to squeeze the last juice out of this political orange.