I rise today knowing full well that this is the first day of individual debates under the Jopling reforms. I must say, as a small aside, that I was no great supporter of the Jopling reforms and I remain somewhat cynical and sceptical about them. None the less, I am happy to have the opportunity to raise a particular issue of grave concern.
I am also grateful and happy to see my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) on the Front Bench. He has a great sense of justice and a concern that people should be treated fairly. I urge him to retain his usual talents in that regard, as I lay out the case before him.
I make no apology for the fact that the debate is peculiar in that it is about one particular individual, a constituent of mine. It may seem strange that I should have gone to the lengths of applying for a debate, but the case has wider ramifications. There are probably many other Mr. Dedmans throughout the country who suffer much the same sort of problem. I hope that they will be given some heart by my raising the matter. The case is fairly complicated, so again I make no apology for walking hon. Members through it slowly and in some detail.
On the night of 7 July 1992, the police were called to a boatyard at Point Clear, St. Osyth, Essex at the request of the yard owner. On arrival, they spoke to a Mr. Brown who claimed to be the owner of a boat called the Five Pennies. Mr. Brown produced three documents relating to the boat—a letter from the Metropolitan police about the theft of the boat, a witness order to attend the trial of a Mr. Lewis who was charged with the theft of the proceeds of the boat and a photograph of Mr. Brown with the boat.
Despite the fact that Mr. Dedman was known at the time to be the owner of the boat by the boatyard and had been so certainly for an established period, no one thought to contact him to counter the claim that a new owner had arrived on the scene.
The police officers looked at the documents and talked to the man and then gave their permission for the boat to be taken away. Mr. Dedman has believed for some time, and I suspect that he is right, that the police should have been much more suspicious about the time at which the individual chose to arrive at the boatyard and the fact that he at no stage urged them to contact Mr. Dedman to establish his claim. They should have been more cynical and, at the very least, made sure that the boat was impounded rather than allowing it to be handed over.
The problem is that the police officers clearly gave credence to Mr. Brown's story, and the security guards at the boatyard then bowed before them. A statement was taken from Mr. Brown and documents were photocopied, but he was allowed to take the boat away, and that is where the complications start. It was only the following day that Mr. Dedman was told about the removal—I say theft—of his boat, well after the individual had been and gone, at which stage he had no redress.
As I have said, at no time was Mr. Dedman contacted by the police, or by anyone for that matter, before the boatyard contacted him to tell him that his boat had gone. To put the matter in another context, I cannot imagine that, if the police were called to an incident concerning an important object of transport such as a car, they would never have assumed that someone else was the owner. They would have sought to check, using the numberplate, who was the licensed owner and to discover the correct procedure. Yet here the procedures seem to have collapsed and the police were happy to let the boat go.
Mr. Dedman contacted the police about the boat and was told by the officer concerned at the time that he had been satisfied from the documentation that Mr. Brown was the legal owner. I find that immensely strange because I have always understood the police to be cynical about getting involved in such cases, and that if they are sucked into them, they seek to make sure that they understand both sides of a case before pronouncing any opinion on a matter. Even then, they would be more likely to be reticent about giving approval. Yet here, approval seems to have been given, which carried huge weight.
It was subsequently proved that Mr. Brown was not the owner of the boat and knew so at the time of taking the boat from the boatyard. The Essex police then claimed that they could not have prevented it from being removed, yet they had been involved. Mr. Dedman discovered that the boat had been involved in a number of court disputes before he became its owner.
Mr. Dedman then sought redress through the courts. He sought redress against the police for their actions, but was told by the judge at Southwark Crown court that there was no case against the police. On 12 October 1993, the presiding judge dismissed Mr. Dedman's claim against the first defendant, Mr. Simkins, from whom he bought the boat in 1990, and his claim against the third defendant, the Essex police. Mr. Dedman was ordered to pay the costs of the Essex police and told to recover his costs from the second defendant, Mr. Brown. However, Mr. Brown was declared bankrupt on 16 March 1993.
All Mr. Dedman's efforts to obtain further information about the witness order addressed to Mr. Brown regarding the Lewis case, which Mr. Brown produced to the police on 7 July, have been unsuccessful. Therefore, Mr. Dedman has been unable to find out what Mr. Brown's involvement was in the case. The police and the courts have seemed unable, if not unwilling, to assist him.
So far, I have described many of the events that have led to Mr. Dedman's predicament. Now Mr. Dedman finds that he has to pay not only his own legal costs of £3,000 or more, but he is being hounded by the Essex county council's legal department for their costs of some £3,000. To top it all, our great judicial system leaves Mr. Dedman still without the boat of which he can prove ownership. On many occasions, Mr. Dedman has requested the police to impound the boat, so that once the matter is clarified he can take possession of it, but the police have refused to become further involved in the matter.
It is a remarkable position. Mr. Dedman seems to be being treated as though he has committed a crime. His crime, it appears, was to be stupid enough to own a boat of which somebody else decided that he should no longer have possession. It could be a comedy, were there not the personal tragedy in the middle of it that Mr. Dedman finds himself subject to injustice when he had expected .a just outcome.
I became involved in the case when Mr. Dedman came to me as a final and last resort, explaining that he did not know where to turn. He was being hounded for money, which he had great difficulty in finding. He had no boat to offset against the costs should he be forced to pay them because he could not take possession of it. It seemed that no one wanted to listen to him. In other words, he was a little man whose case no one wanted to resolve.
I took up the matter with the Essex police and it struck me that they wanted the matter dead and buried, but I suppose that that is no surprise. Superintendent Cotgrove wrote to Mr. Dedman saying:
While the actions of Mr. Brown can clearly be shown to be shabby, it is the likelihood of proving dishonesty at the time of the offence that is relevant in the case of theft … I do have sympathy for the situation you find yourself in through no fault of your own in the light of the criminal law. Where that does not apply then, the police have no powers to prevent the removal of property.
In many senses that misses the real point. The police were present at the time and it was their involvement then that had a powerful influence on the case.
Superintendent Cotgrove continued:
Having read the documents, the officer was certain that in 1989, Mr. Brown was the owner and therefore he could not stop him from taking the boat away, unless he had reasonable grounds for suspecting an arrestable offence was about to be or had been committed by Mr. Brown.
Why did no one contact Mr. Dedman?
The attitude seems to have been that perhaps there had been a small mistake or problem, but, "For God's sake let us clear it out of the way and shut up shop. Mr. Dedman will have to sort out his own problems. Perhaps we should not have become involved, but it is not our fault." No one thought to contact the legal owner of the boat. I find that one failing remarkable: having chosen to be involved and to give their opinion, the police did not even bother to find out whether the legal owner disputed the change of ownership.
I took the matter up with my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and with the Lord Chancellor. Their letters to me expressed sympathy, but made it clear that they could do nothing to assist Mr. Dedman. I am fully aware of that. I brought the matter to their attention as much because I felt that there was a problem in the operations of the police and the courts if such a problem could arise as because I wished to resolve Mr. Dedman's individual difficulty.
The age-old concept of justice not only having to be done but having to be seen to be done cannot be sufficient if cases such as this arise. It is clear that Mr. Dedman has not been treated fairly. It seems far more important that justice can sometimes be interpreted as "having your day in court", that is good enough; case dismissed. This case is really more about right being done through the legal procedures, which has not happened.
I seek the advice of my hon. Friend the Minister. What can my constituent do? I suspect that my hon. Friend will find it as hard as I do to say where we go from here; the options are clearly limited. There are several possibilities, however. The public may ask why on earth the police and others are not co-operating to try to resolve the issue, rather than shutting the door on Mr. Dedman: there must be a way of resolving it.
The case may seem petty, but it is not. If Members of Parliament have a purpose, it is surely to make certain that the Mr. Dedmans of this world are not crushed by the system. The system clearly could not care less what happened that night; it seems that those involved merely wish to bury the case as fast as possible—and, if necessary, to bury Mr. Dedman with it. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a case to answer? If only those involved had learnt to co-operate, the issue might well have been resolved at an early stage. I urge my hon. Friend to act, or at least to advise me.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Duncan Smith) for raising an important matter concerning what he believes to have been an injustice. He mentioned the Jopling rules. My right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) is my neighbour in Cumbria; while some of us greatly appreciate the benefits of the Jopling rules governing Thursday evenings, those benefits will sometimes be offset by the inconvenience of having to cancel Wednesday morning appointments.
I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford that I appreciate the anger and frustration that his constituent must feel. I am not a boating enthusiast—I get rather scared on any boat smaller than the QE2 with full stabilisers, not that we can afford to travel on the QE2 on our parliamentary salaries. It is said, however, that there are two happy days in the life of a boat owner: the day he buys his boat, and the day he sells it. I do not know about that, but I am sure that my hon. Friend's constituent rues the day on which he bought the Five Pennies. Some might feel that there is an irony in that name, in view of how much the purchase has cost him. I assure him, however, that he has the House's sympathy in what has been a most unfortunate case.
My hon. Friend explained in some detail how his constituent has been left without his boat and with legal bills amounting to some £4,000, and I do not think that there is any dispute about those facts. It may be useful if I summarise the events that led to the case coming before the House; in doing so, I shall draw particularly on the judgment of His Honour Judge Simpson, who presided over the civil action brought by my hon. Friend's constituent.
In 1990, Mr. Dedman bought a motor boat and took it to a boatyard in St. Osyth, in Essex. The boatyard was a secure compound, and about 20 boats were kept there on trailers. Between September 1990 and 1992, Mr. Dedman and his brother used the boat on most Sundays during the season, but all that changed on 7 July 1992, when a Mr. Brown took the boat from the yard.
As my hon. Friend has explained, Mr. Brown was the previous owner of the boat; but he had sold it, using a third party as agent. The boat was properly sold, and a good title eventually came to the Dedman brothers. However, the third party who acted as agent did not pass on the sale price to Mr. Brown, and as a result the agent was later charged with the offence of theft and appeared at Snaresbrook Crown court.
Mr. Brown, however, thought that his boat had been stolen, and His Honour Judge Simpson specifically said that he could not be criticised for that. Mr. Brown saw the boat at the St. Osyth yard and announced his intention to tow it away, whereupon the manager of the yard called the police.
A Police Constable Summerfield answered the call and arrived at the boatyard. Mr. Brown showed him three documents, one of which was a letter from the Metropolitan police dated 4 December. Unfortunately, the letter referred to the theft of the boat rather than to the theft of the proceeds. The mistake was important: if the boat had been stolen, under the Sale of Goods Act 1979 Mr. Dedman would not have had good title to the boat, and Mr. Brown would have been fully entitled to do as he did and take it away.
The judge accepted that PC Summerfield did not know of the inaccuracy in the Metropolitan police report. PC Summerfield did not get in touch with Mr. Dedman at the time because he was called away to investigate a burglary, but he contacted Mr. Dedman the next day and told him what had happened.
I accept that the police constable was called away. Surely, however—having felt some sympathy with Mr. Brown and, perhaps, established in his own mind that Mr. Brown was the boat's owner—he should logically have said that the boat could not be removed until he had confirmed Mr. Brown's ownership by talking to Mr. Dedman and seeing what documents he produced. Surely it was wrong for the police constable to make such a judgment—rushed or otherwise—at the time.
Police officers are not judges in civil disputes; they are not civil arbiters. They must make a judgment about whether a crime is being committed, has been committed or is about to be committed. Was this likely to be a theft, or was a theft about to take place? The police constable formed the view that a crime had not been committed and was not about to be committed, and it was not up to him subsequently to determine the validity of the civil case. I shall say more about that shortly.
My hon. Friend's constituent later sued Mr. Brown, the person from whom he had bought the boat. He also sued the police. The case was heard at Southwark Crown court in October 1993; Mr. Brown did not appear to defend himself, and an interlocutory judgment was entered. Mr. Dedman, however, was unsuccessful in obtaining compensation from Mr. Brown, who claimed to have sold the boat and was declared bankrupt.
I think that the House will accept, as I do, that my hon. Friend's constituent has had a very raw deal. Unfortunately, that sometimes happens. Where I must part company with my hon. Friend is in his belief that his constituent's misfortunes are the fault of the police. In coming to that conclusion, I am not making a personal judgment in my capacity as a Minister: I am relying on the judgment of the courts.
As my hon. Friend is aware, the investigation of crime, the action and decisions which are taken by police officers in the course of their duties are operational matters. They are the responsibility of the chief officer of the force concerned, and Ministers have no authority to intervene. Therefore, it would not be right for me to comment on the way in which an individual operational case was handled.
As the House is aware, my hon. Friend's constituent brought a civil action against the chief constable of Essex and, as I have mentioned, the court dismissed the case. I think it might be useful if I read from Judge Simpson's judgment. It is a long quote but it is useful to put it on the record as my hon. Friend will wish to be aware of it. The judge said:
PC Summerfield himself told me that he examined the boat, read the documents, took a statement from Mr. Brown who was adamant that he would take the boat unless he could be given some reason why he should not. Having read the document, PC
Summerfield felt 100 per cent. certain that, in 1989, Mr. Brown was the owner, and that he could not stop him from taking the boat away. PC Summerfield explained the powers that he had as a police officer and said he could not restrain Mr. Brown unless he had reasonable grounds for suspecting an arrestable offence was about to be committed. He did not give permission or encouragement and could not stop him. The officer cannot be criticised merely because he read the document and had no powers to stop Mr. Brown. In those circumstances I have no hesitation in saying that the action against the Chief Constable of Essex was misconceived. They had no powers to prevent Mr. Brown and no permission or encouragement was given, the action is dismissed as against the third defendant.
My hon. Friend has also criticised the police for failing to prosecute Mr. Brown. As my hon. Friend is aware, a file was passed to the Crown Prosecution Service, which decided that there was insufficient evidence to show that Mr. Brown had acted with dishonest intent. Therefore, no action was taken against him.
The decision whether to prosecute rests entirely with the Crown Prosecution Service and not with the police. The police's involvement in the decision on whether to proceed ends when the file leaves their hands and is passed to the CPS.
My hon. Friend asked where to go from here so that his constituent could get some satisfaction. If my hon. Friend's constituent is still dissatisfied, as I perceive he is, it is of course open to him to register a complaint against the police. I understand that at no stage has he decided to take that course, not even in 1992 before the matter went before the courts. No doubt, before considering that step, Mr. Dedman would wish to consider the finding of the court that the police constable who was involved in this matter was in no way to blame. The complaints system exists so that members of the public see that their concerns are scrupulously investigated.
I shall now deal with the role of the Police Complaints Authority and remind the House of how the system works. Under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, members of the public can register complaints not only with the force concerned but through a citizens advice bureau, through hon. Members or direct to the Police Complaints Authority. All these avenues were open to my hon. Friend's constituent.
The Police Complaints Authority is required by the Act to supervise the most serious complaints. This is defined in the Act but, briefly, it covers those cases which involve death or serious injury. It also has discretion to supervise other complaints, and a duty to supervise non-complaint matters voluntarily referred by police forces because of their potential gravity, and to make reports to the Secretary of State. Finally, the Police Complaints Authority must review the outcome of every investigation, whether supervised or not, and decide whether disciplinary action should be taken against any officer.
I understand that my hon. Friend wrote to Sir Leonard Peach, chairman of the Police Complaints Authority, on 2 August of last year requesting an investigation into the way that Essex handled this case. Sir Leonard wrote to my hon. Friend saying that he understood Mr. Dedman's sense of injustice but warning my hon. Friend that it was unlikely that the Police Complaints Authority could be of much practical assistance in view of the judge's comments.
Sir Leonard also pointed out that the legislation required complaints to be formally recorded by the relevant force. He offered to make the necessary approach to the chief constable but required confirmation that Mr.
Dedman wished to pursue a formal complaint against the officer concerned. It may be helpful if I read to the House Sir Leonard's reply.
I am grateful to the Minister for taking so much time over this matter. However, the point that must be made is that, in the midst of all this, Mr. Dedman is being hounded for costs. In many senses he is worrying about his financial state and is not thinking any more about taking the matter further because, frankly, he cannot afford a moment. The fact that he is being hounded is very much part of the reason for the tremendous hesitation about where he goes from here.
I understand that there is no cost for registering a complaint with the Police Complaints Authority. The difficulty is that Mr. Dedman pursued a case in the civil court against Essex police. The judge said that the case was misconceived and, rightly in my view, did not award the compensation that Mr. Dedman wanted. Mr. Dedman lost that misconceived case and has inevitably incurred costs of his own and police costs. However, Mr. Dedman won the case against Mr. Brown and that would be the perfect solution to the problem. Mr. Brown had a liability to compensate him but the problem is that Brown was declared bankrupt. Therefore, Mr. Dedman has not got his compensation from the one person who should compensate him. Because he failed to get that from the appropriate party, it is not right to sue others such as the police.
It is misconceived to look to an alternative pocket. I am relying on the judgment of the court in favour of Mr. Dedman against Mr. Brown. Mr. Brown is the one who should pay compensation. The court ruled that it was entirely misconceived to try to sue Essex police, and I must rely on that judgment. I think that it is right.
I was about to quote from the letter of Sir Leonard Peach but as my hon. Friend has seen a copy I shall skip that. It is of great interest to my hon. Friend but perhaps other hon. Members are not so interested.
The Police Complaints Authority does not supervise investigations or consider complaints about operational matters. While I appreciate that this must occasionally seem unfair to members of the public, I must invite the House to consider that there really is no alternative. Unfortunately, crime has been in existence as long as ownership. The police work extremely hard in crime prevention and at detecting the perpetrators of crimes. The House recognises that they have a very difficult job.
It would be wholly unreasonable to require the police to take responsibility for being unable to prevent a crime taking place. If it were otherwise, we would need to recruit half the nation as police officers and have them keep a 24-hour watch on the other half. The courts have accepted that, as a matter of public policy, the police have immunity from action over their conduct of an investigation of a particular case, but such immunity was not an issue in this case, which was considered on the facts. I certainly would not like my hon. Friend or the House to get the impression that it is not possible successfully to bring a case against the police.
In general terms, the police are liable for their actions in the same way as other members of society. Under section 48 of the Police Act 1964, a chief constable is liable for torts which are committed by members of the force under his direction and control. The police authority must pay any damages which may be awarded against him by a court.
I accept that this provides little comfort to my hon. Friend's constituent. Unfortunately, it is not possible for the law to be able to satisfy every eventuality. I am aware that in this case my hon. Friend's constituent had good title to the boat. His redress should have been through the civil courts. What was particularly unfortunate about the case, as I said to my hon. Friend a few moments ago, was that, having won the court case against Mr. Brown, the fellow who took the boat away, my hon. Friend's constituent did not receive any compensation because Mr. Brown had been declared bankrupt. I accept that this may be scant comfort, but the liability against Mr. Brown still exists.
Many others, apart from my hon. Friend's constituent, have lost out because of difficulties surrounding title of goods. People who inadvertently buy stolen goods, maybe stolen cars, boats or anything else, do not have any recourse to law. That is a matter of real concern to people who make purchases in the second-hand market.
The Government have taken action through the crime prevention strategy to reduce the opportunity for crime by encouraging the public to undertake a range of measures such as property marking.