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5.26 pm

The Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs (Mr. John Denham): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) on

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obtaining this debate and pay tribute to her continuing interest in the case and her diligence on behalf of the Ashley family. I am grateful for her remarks about my involvement in the case.

I begin by expressing my sympathy to the Ashley family for their loss, as I did when I met them with my hon. Friend last July. The shooting of James Ashley was a tragic mistake. It should not have happened. I sympathise with my hon. Friend in her frustration in trying to understand the circumstances that led to the shooting, why it happened and what has happened since to reduce the chances of such tragic incidents occurring in future. The case has held real frustrations for me as a Minister, particularly as it has not yet been possible to resolve all the understandable concerns of the public and the Ashley family.

It is four years since the shooting of James Ashley by Sussex police officers took place in Hastings. It has taken far longer than is desirable to deal with all the issues arising from that incident. Some are still unresolved, and it has not been possible for the full circumstances to become public knowledge. In responding to my hon. Friend's concerns, I want to refer briefly to the history of the tragic case, to explain what we are doing to improve the way in which such cases will be handled in future, to set out what has been done to restore confidence in the policing of Sussex and to respond to my hon. Friend's request for the establishment of an inquiry.

As my hon. Friend has set out, James Ashley was shot by Sussex police officers in Hastings on 15 January 1998. An investigation was immediately established under the supervision of the Police Complaints Authority, and the main investigation into the shooting was carried out by Barbara Wilding, then assistant chief constable of Kent police. Another investigation, into the conduct of senior officers, was led by the late Sir John Hoddinott, then chief constable of Hampshire. It was 12 months before those investigations were completed.

In 1999, four officers were charged with criminal offences. Disciplinary action was taken against the then chief constable, Paul Whitehouse, and other disciplinary charges were brought against the deputy chief constable, who was suspended. Two years later, in April 2001, the officer who fired the fatal shot was acquitted of murder on the direction of the judge.

The senior officers in charge of the operation faced charges of misfeasance in public office, but they were acquitted when the Crown Prosecution Service offered no evidence in light of the acquittal of the police constable. Those three officers currently face disciplinary charges.

After the collapse of the criminal trials, the coroner concluded that he should not hold an inquest, as his findings could not be inconsistent with the outcome of the relevant criminal proceedings. In July 2001, Chief Constable Paul Whitehouse stepped down from operational command of the force; he formally retired in September. A new chief constable has since been appointed. In December 2001, the police authority considered a medical assessment in relation to the deputy chief constable, and resolved that he should be retired on medical grounds.

That sequence of events has created a possibly unique situation. The criminal proceedings were curtailed, but because there is to be no inquest there has been no alternative opportunity for full public scrutiny of the facts of the case. I had therefore hoped that the investigation

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reports might be disclosed to the Ashley family, but as my hon. Friend says, those reports are the property of the chief constable of Sussex and of the Sussex police authority, and they have concluded after taking legal advice that those reports may not be disclosed.

The case shows serious flaws in the current arrangements for investigation of complaints against the police. Investigations of serious incidents are often complex and difficult, but they take too long. The respective responsibilities of the chief constable, the police authority, the Police Complaints Authority and the investigating officer mean that there is no effective accountability for the conduct of such investigations. The present system leads to excessive secrecy and a lack of involvement by complainants and bereaved families. It is also ineffective in terms of providing a means for lessons to be learned from such cases.

I hope and believe that we are tackling all those problems in the new police complaints system. The Police Reform Bill, which received its Second Reading in another place on 5 February, will establish a much more effective system. That system will be led by the new Independent Police Complaints Commission, which will have a far more powerful roll than the existing PCA.

Any death or serious injury involving the conduct of police officers, and other serious incidents of possible misconduct, will be referred to the IPCC to determine how the case should be investigated. A case of the gravity of the Ashley case would lead to an independent investigation undertaken by the IPCC itself. In such cases it will no longer be the responsibility of the police to investigate themselves. The IPCC will have clear control of and responsibility for the conduct of such investigations, and it will be clearly accountable to Parliament and the public for its work.

The Bill will ensure far more openness in the system. There will be a statutory duty on the IPCC and on the police to keep complainants informed throughout the investigation, and to ensure that they receive a full account of the outcome. That will include allowing the investigation report to be disclosed to the complainant, subject to a sensitivity test.

The IPCC will be able to participate effectively in disciplinary hearings, either presenting the case against an officer or instructing legal representatives to do so. In serious cases, that will ensure that the evidence is presented robustly. The IPCC will also have a statutory responsibility to ensure that the lessons to be learned from the investigation of complaints are disseminated.

The new complaints system will be more independent, more open and transparent, and more effective in ensuring that cases are dealt with speedily. All those improvements are essential to achieve public confidence in the handling of complaints against the police.

Although those future changes do not directly address my hon. Friend's frustration and dissatisfaction with her experience in the Ashley case, I hope that I have been able to reassure her that we are working to reflect the lessons of that case and other unsatisfactory cases in drawing up proposals for the IPCC. By emphasising disclosure, the involvement of complainants and the independence of the process, I hope to construct a system that will not give rise to the same problems as have arisen in the past.

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The Police Reform Bill also makes changes to the powers to remove senior officers in appropriate cases. The changes will allow action to be taken much more effectively when the interests of efficiency and effectiveness make it necessary for a chief officer to step down. The circumstances in which such powers might be used will of course be rare, but we need to ensure that effective powers are available where necessary, including powers to require the suspension of a chief officer where that is necessary in the interests of maintaining public confidence.

My hon. Friend will understand that it would not be right for me to comment on the merits of individual cases. In the case of the former deputy chief constable of Sussex, I should put it on record that I have not seen the medical assessment that led the police authority to its decision, and nor would it be right for me to do so. It is worth saying, however, that our general approach to such issues was set out in paragraph 6.46 of the White Paper on police reform. The Government believe that it is unacceptable for sickness or medical retirement to be used as a means of avoiding discipline.

Regulations already allow for disciplinary hearings to go ahead in the absence of the accused. That was the change promised four years ago. However, I have to admit that the power is not used very frequently. So we will provide strong support from the centre for firm management action to proceed with hearings in all but the most exceptional cases.

The problem is not so much with the way the law is constructed, but with the way it is applied in practice. Guidance contains a presumption that completion of disciplinary proceedings should not generally be a reason to delay medical retirement. We intend to change that and will be bringing forward amendments to the central guidance next month. Where medical retirement is at issue, the police authority should consider whether to exercise its discretion not to retire the officer where public interest in completing the proceedings in a misconduct case outweighs the medical condition.

Understandably, the shooting of James Ashley and the subsequent events were damaging to public confidence in the policing of Sussex. The public rightly want reassurance that everything possible is being done to ensure effective policing in the area. That is one reason why I asked the Sussex police authority under section 43 of the Police Act 1996 to produce a formal report. I know that my hon. Friend thinks it a matter of coincidence, but I received that report within the past few days. Indeed, I believe that I read it on Thursday. Despite having received it close to this Adjournment debate, it seemed much better to put it in the public domain before the debate rather than to publish it a few days afterwards. So it has been placed in the House of Commons Library and is in the public domain.

The report sets out the detailed programme of action taken in the force to ensure that its firearms capability meets national standards. Last summer, the firearms capability of the force was subject to detailed scrutiny by a specialist team from Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary. The inspectorate produced a report that made 26 recommendations. All have been accepted and taken forward, and the force is now in compliance with national policy on the operational use of firearms.

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The force was subject to a wider inspection of its performance, beginning in September 2000 and continuing through much of 2001. Her Majesty's inspector has completed his report on the performance of the force, which will be published next month. I anticipate that the report will identify candidly the damage to the operational effectiveness of the force which followed the shooting of James Ashley and the consequent intensive investigations. I can add that Her Majesty's inspector will conclude that the recovery process is now well under way. The report will state:

On the basis of that independent, professional assessment, Sussex police, under its new leadership, is well on the road to recovery. I hope that, despite the fact that, for reasons that are understood, the police authority report has on legal advice omitted certain material that might have been prejudicial to disciplinary hearings, its report, together with the inspector's report, will provide public reassurance, and that the people of Sussex can have confidence in their police service.

Following the investigation report arising from the case, the Association of Chief Police Officers undertook a major revision of the national manual on police operational use of firearms. As my hon. Friend has recognised, I wanted to go further to ensure an independent examination of a number of incidents. That is why I asked the Police Complaints Authority to produce a special report on the lessons to be learned from all recent firearms incidents.

The review will consider the lessons to be learned from investigations supervised by the PCA since January 1998. The PCA will examine all incidents in which shootings by the police resulted in death or injury, with particular regard to the planning, control and conduct of those operations; the way in which the concerns of the bereaved families were addressed, and how they were kept informed of the progress of the investigations—a matter to which my hon. Friend rightly drew attention; and the training and skills needs of police officers involved in such operations, particularly at command level.

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The Sussex report to which I referred earlier has already been published. The PCA is due to report in May; its report will be laid before the House and published. As my hon. Friend will recognise from the time scale, it will cover the two further incidents involving two other individuals to which she referred. My other concern is to provide reassurance to members of the Ashley family about why the shooting occurred; I appreciate that so far it has not been possible to meet all their concerns. I shall now set out the position that we have reached and some of the dilemmas.

Disciplinary proceedings are still pending, which makes it impossible for me to comment at this stage on the details of the case. Because the incident occurred such a long time ago, those proceedings will be conducted under the old police discipline regulations, under which the Secretary of State is the appellate authority. I should not express any view on matters which are still to be considered through the disciplinary process. I understand too that the Ashley family are bringing civil proceedings against the force. We are caught in a dilemma; I recognise that it will not be possible fully to satisfy the concerns of the Ashley family without providing them with further information, but disclosure of such information at this stage might make it impossible to proceed with disciplinary action. Against that, I recognise that it will be a considerable time before the disciplinary process is completed.

Similar considerations apply to the question of establishing an inquiry. I would be reluctant to take any action which might make it impossible to conclude the disciplinary process. I must also consider whether an inquiry would help to promote effective policing in Sussex and the restoration of public confidence. A great deal has been, and is being, done to tackle the problems in Sussex; to improve the current system for investigating police complaints; and to ensure that police use of firearms complies with the highest professional standards. I may therefore have reason to doubt whether an inquiry would add anything to that process. But my mind is not closed and, in conclusion, I will reflect carefully on what my hon. Friend has said.

Question put and agreed to.

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