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18 Jul 2001 : Column 112WH

Operation Lancet

12.30 pm

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East): I welcome the Minister to his new position in the Home Office.

My main reason for calling for the debate is that I represent a constituency where one of the country's longest running police disciplinary inquiries has been dragging on. I refer to the infamous Operation Lancet. Today's debate is my third on the subject in the past 18 months. That police investigation has involved one of the country's highest profile police officers. Detective Superintendent Ray Mallon has been blocked for nearly four years from doing what he does best—the effective policing of his community and providing a high-profile public service.

The Government were re-elected on a manifesto that promised improvement and reform in our public services. I congratulate the Home Secretary and his team on their appointments. I also congratulate them on the swiftness with which they made it clear that reform of the police service would be a key part of that wider Government commitment. Such an overall approach will be applauded throughout Britain, but nowhere more so than in the Cleveland police area, where residents have had to pick up the bill for a police force that has become tainted by greed and jealousy.

If the Minister wants to see an example of how a police force should not be run, I suggest that he visit Cleveland. I emphasise that I am not making an attack on the rank and file of our police force. They have battled on in the face of extreme adversity. No; the problem lies at the top, with Chief Constable Barry Shaw and his senior management team. The problem also rests with the police authority, which is seen by many on Teesside not as a watch dog for the public but as publicly funded body armour for the chief constable and his senior managers.

Operation Lancet was launched nearly four years ago by senior officers of the Cleveland police force, who chose to believe the word of convicted criminals above that of hard-working and respected detectives. It was a matter of extreme regret that, at that early stage, the chief constable did not follow the advice offered to him by the Police Superintendents Association of England and Wales to call in a senior officer to have a simple look and see, in order to assess the strength of the evidence. I am convinced that such a move would have confirmed within a matter of weeks what the public of Teesside already knew, which is that those rank and file officers, including Ray Mallon, were all honest, dedicated and hard-working people. Instead, in a decision driven by petty jealousy and self-interest, the senior officers, with the tacit approval of a neutered police authority and the increasingly discredited Police Complaints Authority, embarked on a witch hunt. It was a witch hunt to equal that of Salem.

So far, Operation Lancet and the associated inquiry that followed in its wake have bled local and national taxpayers of as much as £7 million. The operation has demoralised the ordinary hard-working rank and file police officers on Teesside, men and women who had previously set the standard for crime fighting in the United Kingdom. The officers suspended as a result of

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Lancet, and those officers who were questioned by Lancet investigators, have had to put up with an implied slur on their character.

Senior force managers and some members of the Cleveland police authority have been only too happy to peddle stories about severe corruption in the Cleveland force. It has been said that individual police officers traded hard drugs for confessions, beat up subjects and acted as a law unto themselves. Nearly four years on, we know that that was complete rubbish.

In Operation Lancet, 400 criminal allegations were levelled against 60 officers, 571 notices were served, 6,707 specific inquiries were made, 3,162 statements were taken, 2,444 separate officer reports were compiled and no fewer than 8,311 other documents were considered. After all that, each allegation having been considered in depth, the Crown Prosecution Service concluded that the evidence did not support any criminal charge. I ask the Minister to consider that. Would anyone now suggest that the spending of such a massive sum of public cash for no return was the best use of police resources?

The decision of the CPS should have been the end of the story, but it was not. The chief constable of Cleveland has instigated a new series of costly and long-running internal disciplinary hearings, which revisit all the Lancet evidence at great cost, I suspect, to manpower and resources. Public disquiet at the cost and length of Lancet led to the appointment of Sir John Hoddinott, the former chief constable of Hampshire and a respected man in the British police system, to bring order from chaos and to report on Lancet to the Home Secretary.

Meanwhile, Ray Mallon and some of his colleagues remain suspended. As well as having to run the gamut of the former Lancet machinery, Ray Mallon has been the victim of some peculiar and sinister practices. A highly respected civilian employee in the press section of the Cleveland police who could see what was happening was forced to resign in disgust at the orchestrated dirty tricks campaign directed at Ray Mallon from its senior ranks. The matter is now being investigated by another external police force, that of South Yorkshire. I hope that its report is near completion.

We also saw the selective leaking of a section of a highly confidential Treasury counsel report into Ray Mallon on the day after the CPS cleared him, the very day on which he was to hold a press conference to outline his views. On top of that, Mr. Mallon has discovered that operatives from a Government agency—he believes it to be MI5—have been following him. Will the Minister investigate the truth of that as a matter of urgency? If it is true, what justification can be given? Is a cleared detective superintendent a threat to our country's national security?

In the latest report on Cleveland police, Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary warned of the need to keep Lancet focused. It stated that the inquiry should not

Surely that has started to happen yet again. There are to be no prosecutions, and the disciplinary process takes place behind closed doors and far from any public scrutiny.

Legal advisers to the police authority have recently suggested that it instigate a series of court orders to gag the local press and hon. Members from commenting on

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any aspect of Lancet. As everyone will expect, that suggestion was treated with utter derision and contempt by the local press, which saw it as an attempt to gag free speech and comment and as part of the murky world of spin and cover-up that has come to characterise Lancet. Thankfully, for once the members of the Cleveland police authority found enough courage to tell the authors of that piece of censorship to take the suggestion back to the cesspit from which it originated. Indeed, an air of mutiny is now apparent in the police authority, as the realisation of the results of the past four years of cover-up and concealment dawns. Just a week ago, a member appointed by the Home Office resigned. Although he kept his own counsel about his resignation, I know from other quarters that it was due to his growing realisation that the authority was both unwilling and unable to hold the chief constable to account.

During the attempts at gagging orders and the first resignation over Lancet, the latest annual report of the Police Complaints Authority was published. That had a section on Lancet, which stated:

It continued:

The passage concluded:

The relevant section of the Police Act 1996 refers to matters that emerge as a result of Police Complaints Authority activities which, in the opinion of the authority

I would argue that the fact that the PCA now considers the matters in question to be of such gravity that they need to be placed before the House should outweigh the timetable drawn up by the chief constable with respect to disciplinary matters. I am deeply fearful that the sheer bulk and weight of the evidence collated for Lancet, with deliberately long and drawn-out internal disciplinary hearings by the chief constable, will frustrate the will of Parliament—which is to hear the PCA's opinions on Lancet—and will prevent a proper debate on the issue.

I am aware of the reforms promised by the Home Secretary involving the framing of new legislation to open out, democratise and speed up police complaints and disciplinary procedures. I know that he is keen for a move away from the disturbing spectacle of the police investigating the police, with the Masonic and canteen-culture echoes that arise from that. I do not believe that the framing of such new measures can proceed without our taking into account the history of Lancet and without an explanation of the PCA's concerns about the handling of the issue. It would be like trying to write "Macbeth" without mentioning the character of Lady Macbeth.

I ask the Minister for some undertakings: that he will meet the chief constable and put pressure on him to speed up the Lancet disciplinary hearings and set a date for their end; that he will ask Sir John Hoddinott if he

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can give a date for his final report into matters affecting the Cleveland police as a result of the Lancet years; that he will ask the South Yorkshire police for a date for the completion of their investigation into the dirty tricks operation that has its roots in the Cleveland police; and that, on receiving the relevant assurances, he will liaise with the PCA, so that a full report on Lancet, under section 79(2) of the Police Act, can be laid before the House.

The Lancet years will help to inform a better way of dealing with police complaints and disciplinary matters. In that respect, the sense of outrage felt by the people of Teesside will have done the nation a favour. However, there must still be a reckoning and a result on Teesside. The result is needed to inform root-and-branch reform of the Cleveland police and the Cleveland police authority. The people of Cleveland want a full public inquiry into operation Lancet, so that those who cannot speak now can have their say, and so that falsehood and petty jealousies can be exposed and blame apportioned. It is essential that the mistakes of Operation Lancet should never be repeated. The taxpayer and good, honest police officers, such as Ray Mallon, must never again be treated with such contempt. I ask the Minister to give serious consideration to such a public inquiry. Those with nothing to fear would have nothing to hide.

12.45 pm

The Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs (Mr. John Denham) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar) on securing the debate, and I am grateful to him for raising issues relating to the investigation of alleged misconduct in the Cleveland police, which continue to attract interest and concern locally and nationally.

It is true that Operation Lancet has been one of the longest and most complex investigations in the history of the complaints system. The investigation, which began in late 1997 as a result of serious and disturbing allegations and counter-allegations against a number of officers, has now concluded, but disciplinary proceedings continue. Some 2,000 witness statements were taken and 44 files were generated, covering various criminal and disciplinary issues. More than 500 allegations against 61 officers were dealt with. Today, eight officers remain suspended.

Public confidence in the police service rests on its reputation for integrity. When allegations of corruption or misconduct are made and the service's reputation is brought into question, it is important that there be thorough scrutiny to establish the facts and determine what action is appropriate. Cleveland acted robustly by initiating an investigation into the allegations in this case.

I share the concern of many about the time taken to bring matters to a conclusion. The investigation suffered several serious delays, some of which were the result of a substantial number of counter-allegations by officers under investigation. Those counter-allegations were brought together under a separate investigation. The senior investigating officer for Lancet, Andrew Timpson, had to be replaced because of his personal

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situation and eventual departure from his post as chief constable of Warwickshire. He was replaced by Lloyd Clarke, the deputy chief constable of West Yorkshire.

My hon. Friend has taken a close interest in the progress of Lancet and its related inquiries into alleged corruption and misconduct in the Cleveland police. He has asked many questions in the House about the scope and cost of the inquiries, and secured two Adjournment debates—on 10 November 1999 and 13 June 2000—on the Cleveland police. Of course, at that time I was not the Minister with responsibility for such matters, but I have taken the opportunity to read those previous exchanges, as he would expect.

From an early stage, Operation Lancet was supervised by the PCA. Its role was to ensure that a thorough and impartial investigation was carried out. There has also been close consultation with the CPS throughout the investigation. The CPS completed its work on Lancet in February, and has not pressed any charges under Lancet. Of course, responsibility for the matter rests with the Director of Public Prosecutions.

To date, the total cost of Operation Lancet is about £3.25 million. However, my hon. Friend mentioned a figure of £7 million. Having read previous debates, I am aware of differing interpretations of the figures, but £3.25 million is the figure with which I have been provided. I shall perhaps endeavour to write to the hon. Gentleman to explain why our figures differ and resolve the matter once and for all. None the less, by anybody's measure even £3.25 million is a substantial sum. The cost of the operation raises questions about the conduct of such complex investigations. Of course, a major investigation such as this can place a significant burden on the budget of a small force such as Cleveland. It was in those exceptional circumstances that the then Home Secretary, now the Foreign Secretary, authorised a contribution of £1.9 million from Home Office funds towards the investigation's costs.

As I mentioned earlier, the position today is that eight officers remain suspended from duty. The suspensions may continue either until it is decided not to bring disciplinary charges, or until the case is resolved. That is a matter entirely for the chief constable of Cleveland.

My hon. Friend invited me to intervene in some way in the handling of the affair. However, if he were campaigning in the Chamber for an investigation into a scandal that he thought had occurred, he might be alarmed to think that a Minister was intervening to tell the chief constable how to conduct the investigation. Ministers can rightly say that, in such circumstances, it is for the chief constables of police forces to conduct what is, after all, an operational matter, in line with their responsibilities and accountability.

The chief constable and the PCA have responsibility for considering the disciplinary aspects of the inquiry and for determining whether any officer should face disciplinary proceedings. The review of disciplinary matters is continuing but, to date, seven officers face disciplinary charges. One detective superintendent will face 14 charges and his hearing is scheduled to be held in mid-October. The other six officers, who have heard of their charges since April, will have their hearings early in the new year. One chief superintendent and one superintendent have had disciplinary charges found against them.

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The Home Secretary, in addition to what I said earlier, has a role as the appellate authority in the disciplinary process. In the future, he may be called upon in that capacity to consider any disciplinary appeals from officers that arise from this inquiry. It would, therefore, be inappropriate for me to comment further on those matters.

My hon. Friend made several trenchant criticisms of the PCA and the current system of handling such affairs. It is true that the problems of the present system, in dealing with complex, long-running investigations, have given significant dissatisfaction within the police service. We are committed to introducing a new system, and we will have to be confident that it will be robust enough to deal with the most testing cases. If we are to build public confidence in the complaints system, there must be greater independence and openness in the way in which alleged police corruption and misconduct are investigated. We laid our plans for the system before the House in a framework document on 18 December 2000. The Government's fundamental objective is to promote public and police trust by providing an effective and efficient system for dealing with police misconduct. In the Queen's Speech, the Government announced their intention to introduce a Bill later this Session which included a provision to establish a new police complaints system.

Now that the Lancet investigation has concluded, we shall want to consider any lessons on how similar matters should be dealt with in the future. Calls have been made, reiterated again today by my hon. Friend, for an inquiry into the whole affair. We think that an independent review would help to identify the lessons to be learned from the conduct of Operation Lancet. We should then be able to take those into account in developing the details of the new complaints system.

The review will provide a detailed case study of the way in which allegations of corruption and other serious complaints against the police are investigated, by examining strategic operational decisions that were made and resources, including time management, that were utilised. My hon. Friend referred to that review as seeking to "bring order from chaos". It is important to make it clear, on the record, what the review will and will not cover. I need to be unequivocal. The review will not reconsider the conclusions of Lancet, which will continue to be the subject of on-going police disciplinary proceedings.

The terms of reference of the review were drawn up with that in mind. It may be helpful if I put them on record. They were drawn up on behalf of the Home Secretary to conduct a review of Operation Lancet and were as follows: to consider the functioning of the statutory constitutional arrangements for the investigation of corruption and other serious complaints against the police, including the roles of the PCA and the CPS; to consider Operation Lancet as a case study of how such an investigation is managed strategically and operationally and to consider the process by which decisions were taken during the investigation, and the extent of resources and time used; and to make recommendations for the future investigation of police complaints. The review will

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consider the issues arising from the conduct and management of the investigation and will not reconsider any of the matters of substance that were the subject of investigation. The review will not consider issues relating to the substance of allegations of misconduct about individuals or any such new allegations.

As my hon. Friend knows, Sir John Hoddinott, the former chief constable of Hampshire, has been asked to carry out the review. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for acknowledging the respect in which Sir John is held. That is helpful while we await the review.

We carefully considered the timing of the review. We listened to the police authority and the chief constable, who had expressed concerns about its timing and the risk of prejudice to on-going disciplinary proceedings. However, to learn the lessons in time for the new complaints system, the review had to start immediately. I am satisfied that the terms of reference will separate the disciplinary process from the review. Although I have not been able to give the dates for which my hon. Friend asked, I hope that I have reassured him that we will try to take Sir John Hoddinott's conclusions into account when drafting legislation later this year for the new complaints procedure.

I understand that some proposals were put to the police authority that suggested restrictions on the way in which some information would be made available. The position is that the police authority, like any other public body, considers many reports, including proposals offered by officials and advisers. However, on this occasion, the authority made it clear that it was not prepared to support any proposal relating to the consideration of court orders or media coverage of investigations. That has been emphasised in a statement issued by the chair of the authority, which underlined its commitment to the principle of open government. The authority cannot be criticised for having a paper tabled by its advisers. It has made its position on the proposal clear.

Finally, I should like to address the allegations made by my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East about the involvement of the security services. He will be aware that the policy of successive Governments has been neither to confirm nor deny whether the security services have been involved in any specific operational matter. The investigatory powers tribunal, headed by Lord Justice Mummery, provides a robust redress mechanism for people who wish to complain about the activities, or alleged activities, of the security services.

Dr. Kumar : Before my right hon. Friend concludes, may I remind him of the PCA's report on Lancet? He has not commented on that and I hope that he has not overlooked it.

Mr. Denham : Given the time remaining, it would probably be better for me to write to my hon. Friend on that point.

I end by acknowledging my hon. Friend's continuing concern about the issue. We too want to find out what can be learned from Operation Lancet to ensure that we can incorporate those positive lessons in the new complaints system.

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