Previous SectionIndexHome Page

10.39 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Hilary Benn): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) for raising this case in an Adjournment debate; for the manner in which he presented his concerns; and for his diligence on behalf of Glenn Howard's family, to whom I offer my sincere personal condolences on their great loss. Every death in police custody is a death too many and an individual tragedy. It is right that every possible step should be taken to ensure that people are properly cared for in police custody.

For the benefit of Members present in the Chamber, the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington set out the circumstances surrounding the tragic death of Glenn Howard. Following those events, the Metropolitan police referred the matter to the Police Complaints Authority for supervision of the investigation into Mr. Howard's death, and Detective Superintendent Curtis was appointed as the senior investigating officer. Following consultation between the coroner and the Police Complaints Authority, the file was passed to the Crown Prosecution Service for its consideration. The CPS decided that there should be no further action for criminal proceedings.

At the subsequent inquest, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the jury returned a verdict of accidental death. However, the inquest jury added that

In line with its policy, the Crown Prosecution Service then reviewed the decision that it had taken previously, but remained of the view that none of the police officers should face criminal proceedings.

Following receipt of the investigation report, the Police Complaints Authority—which eventually expressed itself satisfied with the quality of the investigation—directed that four officers face disciplinary charges for neglect of duty in relation to their failure to provide the necessary

8 Jul 2002 : Column 721

care to Glenn Howard and, in the case of one officer, to monitor his condition and render care to him in the van on his way to the police station and the hospital. The PCA initially recommended to the Metropolitan police that one officer face a disciplinary charge of using excessive force. Owing to resistance from the Metropolitan police and advice from counsel, the Police Complaints Authority decided against such a charge.

However, at a disciplinary hearing held in April 2002, two parts of one charge were proved against one officer in that he failed to monitor Glenn Howard's condition after he became his responsibility, and failed to make any oral or visual inquiry of Glenn Howard's state of health. The officer was cautioned. All other charges were dismissed.

The Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan police, lan Blair, wrote to Barry Howard, Glenn Howard's brother, on 10 May this year to acknowledge that the level of care that Mr. Howard received from an officer monitoring his condition was "found to be wanting." Mr. Blair also extended the sympathies and sincere regrets of the Metropolitan police to Mr. Howard's family.

I am aware that, as the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington mentioned, Barry Howard, Glenn's brother, has raised the issue of time discrepancies between the police officers' accounts and other police documentation, particularly the computer aided dispatch—CAD—command and control system. I am also aware that Barry Howard has asserted that his brother was the victim of an unprovoked attack by the police officers.

I understand that a meeting was held in May between Barry Howard and lan Bynoe, of the Police Complaints Authority, supported by police officers from the Metropolitan police service's directorate of professional standards to explain how the timings were obtained. Barry Howard was informed that timings on the CAD message related to when information was entered on the system, not necessarily to when events happened. Although there were differences between the CAD and the police officers' accounts, no evidence was forthcoming to corroborate a suggestion that events were other than described by the officers.

It is also the case that neither the investigation nor the subsequent inquest proceedings produced any evidence which supports the assertion that Glenn Howard was the victim of an unprovoked assault by police officers.

I very much regret that the completion of the case has taken so long. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, a number of factors have contributed to the delay. They include the following: the retirement of the original investigating officer on ill health grounds, which meant that he had to be replaced; Glenn Howard's death more than a year after his arrest meant that the original investigation had to be supplemented by further investigation; an inquest had to be completed; following the inquest, the CPS rightly had to consider the file and the inquest evidence; following the CPS decision not to prosecute, the Metropolitan police had to consider whether disciplinary action was necessary; the Police Complaints Authority disagreed with the proposals of the Metropolitan police and had to direct disciplinary action, as I have described; and the Police Complaints Authority member who initially handled the case and made recommendations to the Metropolitan police left in March 2001, which meant that another member had to familiarise

8 Jul 2002 : Column 722

themselves with a lengthy and complex matter in order to take it forward. As I said, I regret that very much, but as a result it was not possible for the PCA to send its concluding letter to Barry Howard until the disciplinary hearing was completed in April.

I note that the hon. Gentleman called for a public inquiry into the death of Glenn Howard, but I have to say that, having regard to all the circumstances, I am not persuaded that that would take us any further forward, given the investigation conducted by the Metropolitan police under the supervision of the Police Complaints Authority, although I want to return to a related point in a moment. That is not to say, however, that there are no lessons to be learned from what happened to Glenn Howard; there are, and I now wish to turn to them.

The most important thing that I can tell the hon. Gentleman and Mr. Howard's family is that we are proposing to change procedures for handling and investigating complaints against the police by introducing the Police Reform Bill. The Bill will replace the Police Complaints Authority with a new body, the independent police complaints commission. Any death involving the police or other serious incidents of possible police misconduct will be referred to the IPCC for it to make a decision on how the case should be investigated. While the IPCC will use its judgment in making that decision, a case of this nature would almost certainly lead to an investigation undertaken by its staff, independently of the police.

Tom Brake: I thank the Minister for giving way. He may be about to deal with this point, but can he give any guarantees or outline as to how long such a process would take? One of the key concerns in this case is the duration of the investigation and the possibility that a body of evidence might have been lost in the four years or more since it began.

Hilary Benn: I entirely understand the hon. Gentleman's point about the time that has been taken, which is why I have expressed my regret.

In comparison with the current system for investigations under the Police Act 1996, the Police Reform Bill will ensure greater involvement of the complainant or next of kin in the investigation; greater openness in disclosing materials to the complainant or next of kin; more effective powers to direct that disciplinary charges be laid against police officers; the ability to attend the disciplinary hearing and, if the IPCC representative chooses, the option either to present the case against the officer himself or herself or instruct counsel to do so; and, in relation to IPCC investigations, greater independence of the person carrying out the investigation.

Better communication with the family will be achieved by placing a statutory duty on the IPCC and the police to keep the complainant informed throughout the investigation and also by allowing the investigation report to be disclosed to the complainant, subject to a sensitivity test. In this case, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, and as the law currently stands, the disclosure of the report is entirely at the discretion of the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, but in view of the nature of the concerns that he expressed, I will convey them to the commissioner in drawing his attention to this debate.

8 Jul 2002 : Column 723

While we await those new arrangements, other changes are also occurring. First, within the Metropolitan police, the internal investigations command now has responsibility for the investigation of deaths following contact with the police. The specialist investigations unit now has four teams on call 24 hours a day to respond to and investigate critical incidents. A detective chief inspector who acts as the senior investigating officer leads each team. All the senior investigating officers have attended a development course that includes training in family liaison, exhibit handling and other investigative and detective skills.

Secondly, as I think the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, last year, the Metropolitan police service launched two initiatives aimed at further reducing the number of deaths. It recruited a nursing manager and six nurses to work in the custody suite at Charing Cross police station to advise custody officers, as well as those undertaking risk assessments, of points that they should bear in mind in relation to detainees. It also produced a training video highlighting some of the medical emergencies that can arise in arrests, such as when prisoners swallow drugs or struggle when restrained.

Thirdly, police forces across the country are taking a wide range of actions to seek to reduce deaths in custody. Those include safer custody facilities, improved training, closed circuit television monitoring and an emphasis on better care, assessment and supervision of detainees.

Fourthly, because since April 1996 there has been a small number of deaths in police custody where restraint may have been a factor, there has been a continuing review of appropriate restraint techniques. Police officers are trained in a number of restraint methods but must use those only within the law: when they have a power to do so and when it is reasonable and necessary to do so. In addition to the skills training they receive, officers are taught about the relevant law and told that they may be called upon to justify their actions.

Finally, in relation to the last point that the hon. Gentleman raised, steps are being taken to seek to improve police practice in relation to mentally ill individuals. The Home Office, the Department of Health and the Association of Chief Police Officers are considering the development of national protocols covering the relationship between the police and health services in dealing with the mentally ill, a point that the hon. Gentleman rightly raised.

The current review of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 codes of practice is seeking to strengthen further the protection for mentally ill detainees, particularly in

8 Jul 2002 : Column 724

terms of assessing their vulnerability and fitness for interview. In addition, the review of the Mental Health Act which is under way recognises that police cells are not generally appropriate places for assessing whether a person needs medical treatment.

In conclusion—

Next Section

IndexHome Page