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Column 580Therefore, there is a direct conflict between the Spanish pathologists--who examined the body but did not see the defective heater, and who said on examination of the body that Mr. Black could not possibly have died accidentally--and the British police and Dr. West, who have examined neither the body nor the defective water heater but still feel able to conclude that Mr. Black died accidentally.
One of them must be wrong. If the Spanish pathologists are wrong, there was a perverse inquest verdict in Portsmouth. It is then, therefore, the duty of the Attorney-General to seek to have the inquest quashed and a new one summoned in order to put the record straight. If, on the other hand, Scotland Yard is wrong, then Mr. Black was unlawfully killed and some policeman somewhere should be looking for the killer or killers. At present, as far as I can see, no one is doing anything.
Let us suppose that the Scotland Yard officers are right and that the defective water heater--which has long since disappeared but which they say was inside the kitchen with no ventilator--accidentally killed Mr. Black. Who removed it, and why? Was it removed with the knowledge or the connivance of the Spanish police? Is there an innocent explanation?
Is not concealing vital evidence of suspicious death a crime in Spain? Has anyone been arrested and charged in Spain with possible tampering with evidence? Have any Spanish police been disciplined for incompetence, or indeed for possible collusion in the suppression of evidence, or were the interests of the owner of the flat and the reputation of the Spanish tourist industry put before the pursuit of justice?
What of our British Government? Are they content to leave the matter there? My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department has tried to be helpful, but the net result of all my recent inquiries of Ministers is as follows.
First, the Home Office cannot require the British police report to be produced for my constituents. The Home Office says that that is an operational matter for the police commissioner, who refuses to release it. Secondly, the Ministry of Defence has apparently washed its hands of the affair. Ministers replying to me have said that it is now "outside their responsibilities" and that the Ministry has "no further standing in the matter."
Yet it was a Royal Navy petty officer who died, in circumstances that remain unexplained. Thirdly, my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney- General has told me that none of the interested parties has approached him to have the inquest quashed. Of course Mrs. Crane has not done so. She agrees with the Portsmouth inquest verdict. Why should she seek to have it quashed?
The Sun, in a feature about the case on 1 July last year, gave the impression that it would seek a new inquest on behalf of Miss Jeffs, but obviously the paper has not approached the
Attorney-General either. The Portsmouth coroner, who could also have asked the Attorney-General to go to the court to have the inquest quashed, has declined to do so even after seeing the Scotland Yard report. Is the coroner satisfied with the original verdict? If not, why does he not act?
Fourthly, the Foreign Office, in a lamentable display of diplomatic sloth, has apparently taken no steps to acquaint the Spanish Government with the British police report, on the absurd ground that the report is confidential to the British police. On 15 February I asked my right hon. Friend
Column 581"whether Her Majesty's ambassador in Madrid has conveyed to the Spanish Government the report of the Metropolitan police regarding the death of Petty Officer John Black, RN ; whether he has asked the Spanish government to investigate the circumstances in which the allegedly defective water heater was removed from the apartment in which Mr. Black was found dead ; and what response he has received". I also asked
"whether he will instruct Her Majesty's ambassador to ask the Spanish Government to show the Metropolitan police report on the death of Petty Officer John Black to the two Spanish pathologists who gave evidence to the inquest in Portsmouth in May 1985 ; and whether the ambassador will request guidance from the Government of Spain on the conflict of evidence between the pathologists and the Metropolitan police officers."
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs replied :
"The report prepared by British police officers into the death of Petty Officer Black remains the property of and confidential to the Metropolitan police. It has not therefore been conveyed to the Spanish authorities."-- [ Official Report, 15 February 1989 ; Vol. 147, c. 200-01.]
That is an abysmal reply prepared by Foreign Office officials for my hon. Friend, and I am amazed that he agreed to attach his name to it.
The Ministry of Defence had a copy of the police report, and showed it to me. When I met my hon. Friend the then Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces last March, officials from the Foreign Office and the Home Office were also present and had all read the report. Are we seriously expected to believe that they could not have conveyed the report--or, at the very least, the letter of 23 March from the Minister to me, which officially summarised it--to the Spanish Government?
I put it to my hon. and learned Friend that it was their clear duty to do so. There is a plain presumption from the British police report that at the least negligence and incompetence took place in Spain, and quite possibly prima facie criminal offences relating to the suppression of evidence. Is that all to be blandly ignored by the Foreign Office to avoid making waves between London and Madrid? What about some compensation from Spain for Mrs. Crane, if her son really died because of the negligence and dangerous fitting of a defective heater, coupled with the possible suppression of vital evidence and either incompetence or collusion--or both--by the Spanish police? Will the British Government do nothing to press for the rights of British citizens, indeed, British service men?
I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will not advise Mrs. Crane to get a Spanish lawyer. When she tried to do so, none was prepared to assist, as I said in the 1986 Adjournment debate. In any case, she cannot afford it.
Above all, the position cannot be allowed to continue by which no steps have been taken to test in open court, or by some other form of judicial inquiry, the glaring disparities in the conclusions of the Spanish pathologists and the British police. Mrs. Crane could not be expected to go to court to press for a new inquest, even if she could afford to do so. She is perfectly satisfied with the existing verdict. She believes that her son was unlawfully killed, and so did a British jury.
If the Attorney-General and the Government accept that verdict, they should be using every diplomatic step to have those responsible for the alleged unlawful killing found and charged. If they regard the verdict as perverse, Ministers should back Scotland Yard and advise the police
Column 582to seek the Attorney-General's support for a new inquest, or the Attorney-General should act on his own and apply to the court or the Government should seek another method of judicial review. The British police, Dr. Iain West and, I hope, the two Spanish pathologists could give evidence in court and be subject to cross-examination. There is no other way by which this sad case will be resolved.
A young British sailor has been dead for over five years in most distressing and unsatisfactory circumstances. His mother still grieves for him and seeks justice. From start to finish, this case has been an endless tangle of misery and unsolved riddles. My file on the matter is vast. I look to my hon. and learned Friend to help me to close it today, but I give him notice that I shall continue with this matter in the remaining years that I serve as an hon. Member if I feel that justice has not been done.
The Solicitor-General (Sir Nicholas Lyell) : I pay tribute to the care and zeal with which my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Meltham (Mr. Latham) has pursued his concern and that of his constituents, Mr. and Mrs. Crane. This is the second occasion on which he has brought to the House for debate the distressing death of Petty Officer Black. He has been assiduous in his use of other channels in pressing the Government for assistance.
As my hon. Friend is well aware, the implications of this subject straddle the interests of a number of Departments. In addition to the Law Officers Department, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office have been involved. In responding to his speech today, I have taken advice from those quarters. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend for informing my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department in advance of a number of specific questions that he intended to raise today. However, I shall read carefully the record of this debate and write to my hon. Friend about any matters that understandably he has raised that I may not be able to answer. Before addressing the specific issues raised by my hon. Friend, it would be appropriate to summarise the developments in the case since the matter was last discussed in the House on 27 June 1986. In December 1986, two journalists, accompanied by the late Petty Officer Black's mother, visited Spain and Gibraltar to conduct inquiries into his death. On their return to this country, they alleged that Petty Officer Black's girl friend, Miss Jeffs, was in possession of information relevant to the case. In view of the possibility, however remote, of future criminal action, Scotland Yard was requested to interview her. This it subsequently did in February 1987, following consultations with Hampshire constabulary and Her Majesty's coroner for south Hampshire.
As my hon. Friend is aware, in March 1987 the police submitted a report which indicated that, contrary to the verdict reached at the inquest held in Portsmouth in May 1985, the evidence was susceptible to other interpretations. The interim report, however, recommended that a further visit be made to Gibraltar and Spain to clarify further outstanding points.
Permission for the visit to Spain was sought from the Spanish Government in June 1987 and was subsequently granted in late October 1987. Certain limits were imposed
Column 583on the investigation in Spain ; specifically, interviews with court officials were not allowed. Such restrictions are not uncommon and the Metropolitan police expressed themselves content with them. Two police officers visited Spain in November 1987 where they were given full access to Spanish court records and evidence and were also able to interview officers of the Spanish police who had conducted the original investigations. They submitted their final report to their superior officer in February 1988. The gist of it was conveyed orally to my hon. Friend on 7 March 1988 by my hon. Friend the then Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces. A comprehensive written summary was subsequently given to my hon. Friend on 23 March 1988 for transmission to the late Petty Officer Black's family. Their report concluded, as my hon. Friend will recall, that there was no evidence of foul play in the circumstances surrounding Petty Officer Black's death, which was caused by carbon-monoxide poisoning. They attributed this to a faulty water heater.
I shall now turn to the specific questions raised by my hon. Friend. He asked whether the British police thought that everything said at the Portsmouth inquest was wrong. It would not be appropriate for the police to comment on any judicial proceedings and, indeed, they cannot comment on the coroner's inquest held at Portsmouth in 1985. That is no part of their functions.
My hon. Friend also asked whether my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General was happy with the verdict of the inquest. A jury at an inquest must reach its verdict upon the evidence which is placed before it during the course of the hearing. Upon the evidence before the jury, it was open to it to reach the verdict which it returned. The Metropolitan police investigation has uncovered new evidence about Petty Officer Black's death which, if it had been placed before the jury, might have led it to return a different verdict. The Attorney-General has already made it clear in his reply to a written question on 16 February from my hon. Friend that he has to date not received any representations about the inquest. Until he receives any such representations, he cannot take a view on it. As to why the British police did not ask to interview the Spanish pathologist, I understand that he had already given evidence before the inquest held at Portsmouth and it is not for the police to challenge or interpret that evidence. That is a matter for the British judicial authorities. The reason for the removal of the water heater is a matter to be investigated by the judiciary and, if subsequently necessary, by the Spanish authorities. The same answer applies to the question of any suggestion of collusion between the Civil Guard and the owner of the flat.
The reason why the report was not shown to the Spanish pathologist has already been explained to my hon. Friend in answer to recent written questions. It is the property of and confidential to the Metropolitan police. A copy has been passed to the appropriate authority--Her Majesty's coroner for South Hampshire.
Column 584My hon. Friend asks why the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis declines to agree to the release of the report of the further inquiries made by his officers. He suggests that it should at least be made available to the family and their lawyer. As has been made clear in reply to his recent questions, access to the report is a matter for the Commissioner. It is a general rule that police reports following inquiries remain confidential and are not disclosed to third parties, either in whole or in part.
This matter of principle came before the High Court in Peach v. Commissioner of Police  2WLR 1080. I shall describe the full reference so that it may be studied by anyone examining the debate. The reference states that this principle is maintained both in the interests of ensuring full and frank communications between the police and those whom they may interview in connection with an investigation and also in the more general interests of preserving the confidentiality of investigations and avoiding disclosure, other than in court, of information that may be prejudicial.
My hon. Friend will understand that that is a principle which has sound foundations. The police are given a great deal of information in the course of their investigations on the understanding that it remains confidential. Erosion of that understanding could reduce the co-operation of those people interviewed by the police. That is a matter of general principle going far beyond any individual case. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has no power to require the Commissioner to allow access to the report. However, with the agreement of the Commissioner, a comprehensive summary of the report--and this is important to stress--was sent to my hon. Friend by my hon. Friend the then Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces on 23 March 1988. Its contents may be used for the purposes of seeking a review of the matter if my hon. Friend's constituent, Miss Jeffs, or anybody supporting her, should wish to do so.
My hon. Friend asked whether the Government were happy to leave matters to rest. This is not a matter for the Government, but a question for the courts to consider, if they are so requested by an interested party. My hon. Friend asked also whether my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office should look into the matter again. As my right hon. and learned Friend has already made clear, he will consider the matter if he is asked to do so in the manner prescribed in section 13 of the Coroners Act 1988. For its part, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will be in a position to act only in the light of the outcome of any future judicial proceedings in this country.
In conclusion, I reiterate that no progress can be made unless and until the necessary action is initiated in the way that I have explained. I respectfully urge my hon. Friend to draw to his constituents and to the attention of others who may have an interest in the matter the procedure for obtaining a fresh inquest and to impress on his constituents that there is no alternative.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes past Three o'clock.
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