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11 Feb 2003 : Column 207WH—continued

Christian Stephen-Martin

11 am

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): It is a pleasure to welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I am grateful to the Minister for taking time out this morning to participate in the debate.

It is not my normal custom to bring a constituency case to an Adjournment debate. Obviously, there are channels that one can use to approach Ministers. However, listening to and thinking through the issues related to the case of Mr. Stephen-Martin caused me such anxiety that I did not want it buried in the ministerial correspondence unit. I felt that the Minister should be aware of and take on board the issues involved. I wish to set out, in as responsible and pragmatic a way as possible, the background to Mr. Stephen-Martin's case, my involvement in it, and some of the circumstances that have prompted the debate. From our past exchanges, I very much hope that the Minister will recognise me as someone who attempts to take a sensible approach to such matters. I feel strongly that the case involves issues that he should consider.

Mr. Stephen-Martin is a constituent of mine. He first came to see me just over a year ago, in December 2001, about impending disciplinary proceedings against him in his role with the Metropolitan police. I made representations on his behalf to the commissioner at that time. He came back to me last summer after his suspension had become a reality, and again shortly before Christmas, when not much was happening with his case. In addition to this Adjournment debate, this week we have benefited from at least one development, in that Mr. Stephen-Martin's Metropolitan police board now has a date. That is a welcome step forward.

By all measures, Mr. Stephen-Martin appears to have been a very highly regarded member of the Metropolitan police team. His role was in the organisation that vets external recruits to the force to ensure that they are suitable to become police officers, and internal appointments to specific specialist roles. For example, he dealt with appointments to the organisation within the Metropolitan police that has a remit to investigate potential malpractice by other officers. He handled sensitive appointments.

What do we know about Mr. Stephen-Martin, a constituent who turned up out of the blue with a story to tell? In April 2001 he received a commendation from the deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police service

a good pat on the back from the force for one of its people. That was less than two years ago.

Mr. Stephen-Martin's line manager, a man to whom I shall return later in the debate, wrote a reference for him last October. He stated that he had worked closely with Mr. Stephen-Martin for the past 14 months, and continued:

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Those are two high accolades from both his line manager and the force. Against that background, I take seriously what Mr. Stephen-Martin has said. I do not believe that any employee goes from excellent to bad in a very short space of time.

What is the nub of the issue that Mr. Stephen-Martin has brought to me? I should like to emphasise to the Minister that the Official Secrets Act covers many areas of Mr. Stephen-Martin's work. He has not sought to share the details of his work, which are covered by the Act, with me because it would not be proper for him to do so. Were I aware of any such matters, I would not discuss them in this morning's debate. The matters that I am discussing, which are not wrapped up in secrecy laws, concern the workings and disciplinary processes of the force.

According to Mr. Stephen-Martin, the current situation has arisen as a result of his work in two specific areas. As I have mentioned, part of his job involved vetting new recruits. When he took over his role, he began challenging a culture, which had existed for many years, of the force not doing a good job of vetting recruits. He says that in many ways lip service had been paid to vetting. He brought an extra discipline to that work, and in doing so raised a number of issues about new recruits and challenged the wisdom of a number of appointments.

The force was under considerable political pressure—as it is today—to increase its numbers and get more officers into the Met. That aspiration is desirable and I share it—providing that the officers are not all poached from Surrey! We want to see the force in our capital city properly manned given the different threats that we face today. At the same time, it is obviously important that the quality and the background of those recruited are suitable for the force. Mr. Stephen-Martin says that he ran into a number of issues at very senior levels over what he saw as the robust vetting of new recruits. He recommended that the Met should not recruit some people because they were not suitable for the job. That brought him into direct conflict with some of his most senior line managers, who had to meet targets for recruiting people to the force.

In addition, Mr. Stephen-Martin says that some of his work on vetting specialist officer appointments was ignored. In his discussions with me, he referred to one particular case in which an officer was nominated for an appointment to the Complaints Investigation Bureau, which appoints officers to investigative positions to review potential malpractices within the force—the police force for the police. In one specific case, he recommended that an officer was not only unsuitable to join the CIB but should be subject to further investigation in relation to a number of alleged malpractices. That did not happen, his recommendations were not listened to and the officer was appointed to the CIB.

Mr. Stephen-Martin says that during those internal difficulties in persuading his senior officers to take on board his recommendations for tough vetting decisions,

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he ran into a direct personal conflict with one of his most senior line managers, who is a high-profile officer whom I do not propose to name under parliamentary privilege in the Chamber because it would not be appropriate. At the end of the debate, however, I will give the Minister Mr. Stephen-Martin's written evidence to the inquiry, and I hope that he will skim through it because it contains one or two disturbing items.

This is a classic case of a whistleblower putting forward anxieties internally and the muck descending from the heavens. Mr. Stephen-Martin said that he faced an internal investigation after a short time about relatively small—in the context of the overall issues, I emphasise the word "relatively"—management issues in his team, which he disputes. He says that a couple of minor complaints were turned into a high-level investigation of his activities, which was led by a more senior person than usual and was pursued with greater than usual stringency.

I am sure that the Minister will agree that it is important that the investigation of an officer for any misdemeanour should be fair, impartial and appropriate. The reason why I become involved a year ago was that the same senior line manager to whom I have referred was involved in the internal investigation of Mr. Stephen-Martin's complaints, and has had line management responsibility for the investigation against him. I wrote to the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis to say that was not right and to ask him to ensure that the case was investigated by a person who was unconnected with the operation of which Mr. Stephen-Martin was part. That has not happened and, worryingly, the same internal organisation of which he was part will be represented on the board of inquiry that will examine his case at the start of March. That cannot be right.

Mr. Stephen-Martin believes that he has been the subject of an internal witch hunt because of the work that he did, and that has been substantiated. Mr. Stephen-Martin's evidence offers several challenges to the Metropolitan police about the way in which it has managed the investigation, especially the conduct of that investigation.

The Minister will be able to look at that for himself, but I shall read one or two snippets from a written statement made by Mr. Stephen-Martin's former line manager—who also wrote his reference. He has now moved to a different role, but nothing would lead us to assume anything other than the fact that he is a respected man doing a good job. There is no question about the authority of the person who wrote the reference and the evidence. He said that the investigating officer, whom I shall not name,

That was based on a verbal interview between the investigating officer and Mr. Stephen-Martin's line manager.

The line manager continued:

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The interview then ended, and he was sent a draft of the statement based on it, which would be put forward as evidence for the investigation. He said:

the investigating officer's

the investigating officer

which is referred to in the evidence document—

I have significant cause for concern given that that comes from a person who I have no reason to believe is anything other than a respected former member of the service, and given that the case is being made against a person who was commended for his work less than two years ago and received an excellent reference from his line manager. That underlies my decision to bring the matter before the Minister today in person so that he can pay close attention to the situation.

I hope that during my 18 months as an hon. Member, the Minister has built up the impression that I try to take issues seriously. Something is not right here; there is something odd about this case. I am not in a position to judge the rights and the wrongs of the matter, and I have heard only one side of the argument. However, the problem can be properly resolved only if someone totally independent of the Metropolitan police—or at least, independent of the organisation of which Mr. Stephen-Martin and the officers to whom he referred in his inquiries were a part—takes a look over the shoulder of those involved and asks whether everything is in order.

I have two questions for the Minister. First, will he ensure that one of his officials, or someone disconnected from the Metropolitan police, meets Mr. Stephen-Martin and discusses his original complaints and criticisms about the vetting process and decisions of the Metropolitan police? Those issues would then be put, privately, on record outside the confines of the Met. Secondly, will the Minister ensure that there is a proper independent assessment of the case, so that we can make sure that it is being properly handled, and there is no question of a witch hunt?

11.15 am

The Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety (Mr. John Denham) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) on obtaining the debate, and on enabling me to set out, to the best of my knowledge, how the Metropolitan police service has conducted the investigation, and how it will continue. I start by offering the hon. Gentleman an unreserved apology. He tabled a parliamentary

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question about the matter last July, but I regret to say that although I myself signed the reply, for some reason it was never printed in the Official Report.

The hon. Gentleman has asked several questions, some of which he also put in a letter to me dated 23 January. I shall reply to the letter after today's debate. However, the case of the hon. Gentleman's constituent, Christian Stephen-Martin, is an internal personnel matter for the Metropolitan police service, and I do not have powers to intervene in the case. Disciplinary proceedings are also in progress, and I have to take care not to say anything that would prejudice those proceedings. I shall have to confine myself to the facts of the matter as reported to me by the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis. I understand from the commissioner that Mr. Stephen-Martin has been kept well informed throughout the affair—although I understand that Mr. Stephen-Martin is not totally convinced of that. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that I shall say anything today of which he is unaware.

Mr. Stephen-Martin was employed as a civilian support staff member of the Metropolitan police service, and worked as a security vetting officer in the service security unit. A formal complaint was made against him by a junior member of staff, about the way that he and another manager treated her during an internal disciplinary investigation into her behaviour. I am told that the disciplinary action in respect of that manager and one other against whom allegations emerged during a subsequent investigation have now been concluded. While the complaint was being investigated, other staff in the unit expressed concerns about working in the unit. A senior police officer was assigned to conduct a management review of the complaints raised by the staff. I understand that the complaints, and the concerns of other staff, led to a complex, wide-ranging and lengthy management review that opened up many lines of inquiry. The management review was conducted according to the MPS civil staff personnel manual, which itself accords with the ACAS code of practice for disciplinary practices and procedures in employment.

Mr. Stephen-Martin was formally suspended on 3 July 2002. He was later notified in writing of the disciplinary allegation made against him, and of the disciplinary procedures to be followed. He was also given an explanation as to why the commissioner thought it appropriate to suspend him. During his suspension, Mr. Stephen-Martin became concerned about the disciplinary procedures as applied in his case. He believed them to be flawed because he thought that the Metropolitan police service had not properly applied its own procedures. I understand that initially, he expected his concerns to be treated as formal complaints against the police under section 65 of the Police Act 1996. I hope that he was able to accept the Metropolitan police service explanation that it was more appropriate to deal with his concerns under existing internal mechanisms.

I am told that as a result of issues being raised, the Metropolitan police service suspended its investigation in order to carry out a review of the conduct of the case, but not a review of the evidence. Because of the extent to which Mr. Stephen-Martin believed that the procedures had been breached and in order to be fair to him, the review needed to be thorough and was necessarily lengthy. In his letter to me, the hon. Member for Epsom

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and Ewell pointed out that the case seemed to have dragged on for an excessive period. I am told that the two main reasons are as follows: the lengthy review of the procedures applied had caused great concern to Mr. Stephen-Martin, and there had been a complex and lengthy management review of the original complaint and the concerns of other staff.

The procedural review was concluded on 25 November 2002, and the commissioner has told me that he is entirely satisfied that the disciplinary procedure was correctly deployed and that all Mr. Stephen-Martin's concerns had been addressed. I am told that Mr. Stephen-Martin was informed of the outcome of the procedural review, and I understand that he continues to have doubts about it. On the conclusion of the procedural review, the Metropolitan police service recommenced the initial management review and the examination of the evidence, which led to a number of allegations against Mr. Stephen-Martin.

I understand that Mr. Stephen-Martin refuted all the allegations made against him, and that those will be considered at a disciplinary hearing scheduled to commence on 3 March. I also understand that the procedural issues will not be considered at that hearing, because they have already been dealt with. The Metropolitan police service wrote to Mr. Stephen-Martin on 5 February, informing him of the disciplinary hearing and about other matters. I presume that he understands how the proceedings will be conducted and what further steps he can take if he is not satisfied with the outcome.

If the boards find that the allegations are substantiated and a penalty is imposed, Mr. Stephen-Martin will have the right of appeal to a senior member of the Metropolitan police service. If the penalty is dismissal, and if the appeal goes against him, he will have the right of a further appeal to an employment tribunal. I hope that the hon. Gentleman who secured the debate will take some comfort from the fact that ultimately—certainly if the penalty were sufficiently serious—all the matters that he has raised today could be heard in front of an independent employment tribunal.

Most of Mr. Stephen-Martin's concerns were procedural and have already been dealt with under the disciplinary procedure review. Other concerns of his are to do with allegations that police officers have lied in their statements to the investigating officer. The commissioner has advised me that if the discipline board does not accept the evidence of those officers, he will consider whether it is necessary to take action against them, and that if that is the case, they will be dealt with through internal management processes that may or may not result in internal disciplinary action. As for the alleged failure to investigate Mr. Stephen-Martin's complaints, which he raised in a letter to the hon. Gentleman, those complaints have not been ignored; they have simply been set aside until the disciplinary proceedings have been concluded.

Over the years, I have spoken in a number of Adjournment debates and other debates in which personnel and disciplinary matters have been raised by hon. Members. I have to say that the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell has raised the issues carefully and responsibly. I have come to accept that and I respect him for doing so. It is always difficult to make a judgment in

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complex cases on the basis of a part of the evidence. Leaving aside the fact that I have no powers to intervene in a case of this kind, the best thing to do is to follow the procedures laid down to ensure that cases are properly investigated. It would not be right at this stage in the proceedings for me to instigate an independent assessment of the case, as the hon. Gentleman has asked. There are still a number of stages through which the disciplinary matter must proceed. Should the penalty be dismissal, the case could be heard at an employment tribunal where all the facts of the matter could be rehearsed. I therefore resist the hon. Gentleman's request.

Chris Grayling : I appreciate the limitations on the Minister's powers and his reluctance to use his powers in interfering in an internal disciplinary matter. None the less, he has a working relationship with the commissioner. He has the ability to say to him that it would be a good idea if someone—even someone from within the Metropolitan police, but entirely disconnected from those matters—were to cast a weather eye over them. I have raised some genuine concerns. The Minister will know which powers are available to him to look into those matters. I want to seek his assurance that he will not set the matter aside and leave it entirely to the internal processes, without his Department at the very least asking whether there is something that it should be worried about here.

Mr. Denham : The hon. Gentleman has raised a number of points that I want to consider. I shall speak honestly and say that across my desk, through correspondence—much more often, it has to be said,

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than in Adjournment debates—questions are raised with me by hon. Members, by members of the public and by the families and friends of police service employees who regularly suggest that disciplinary procedures are not properly carried out. It is almost impossible to make a judgment on the basis of the representations that are made. I have no legal powers to intervene. It is only in the most exceptional circumstances that I would raise queries at such an early stage in the procedure. The initial investigatory board has not yet met, let alone the possibility of appeals having been explored.

It is my inclination to look at those matters only at a later stage—for example, after an employment tribunal has criticised the police conduct of a case. Only then would I get involved with a police force in any part of the country to ask it how it is reviewing such cases. In the recent past there have been cases in which the police service, including the Metropolitan police service, has been criticised by an employment tribunal over the performance of police officers. I have taken an active interest in looking into what went wrong in those cases.

It would cause some difficulty if I were routinely to intervene, even at the level of the working relationship—as the hon. Gentleman put it—with the commissioner or his senior officers, at such an early stage in the formal proceedings. The hon. Gentleman has asked me to take an interest in the case, and I will certainly follow it as it wends its way through the system and ask my officials to keep me updated. However, at present it would be premature to move ahead and ask for the case to be reviewed. We need to let the official procedures go some way further before I should consider doing that.

11.28 am

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.

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